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Planting the seeds of change - UL student Jack O'Connor

Student Social Entrepreneur Jack O’Connor providing solutions to international third World agricultural problems 

Inspired by the movie ‘One Dollar A Day’, 3rd year International Business Student at  Kemmy Business School in UL, Jack O’Connor says that he was struck “to the core” when he began to understand and research the plight of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Born from his studies and creativity was Moyo Nua – a student social enterprise that has won critical acclaim. 

Moya Nua takes its name from a combination of the word moyo, meaning life in the Malawian language of Chichewa, and nua, meaning new in Irish Gaelic. 

The project is the producer of agricultural seeding planters which utilizes simplified agricultural technologies that are both ergonomic and environmentally friendly for smallholder farmers - one of the poorest demographics in the world.

The need for the seed planter was identified after Jack watched the documentary movie that originated out of a series of viral YouTube videos featuring American college students living in rural Guatemala. 

It nearly struck me to the core and motivated me into action.

He started researching rural agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, and that led him to Malawi, a country the United Nation calls “one of the most climate-fragile countries in the world.” In Malawi, about 80% of the country’s food is produced by smallholder farmers, and Jack was moved to design something that could ease the physical demands of farm labor there.  

“We were chatting with the farmers about the importance of their children being able to attend school and how this planter, by reducing labor intensity, would allow their kids to start going to school. 

That really hit home with me because I never considered, until I was actually over there, that the reality for some children is that they have to sacrifice education for sustenance.      

Jack’s volunteering with farmers in Malawi provided him with a number of suggestions for improvement, like making the tool out of locally sourced materials such as bamboo. In total, 18 farmers from Southern Malawi tested the planter. That feedback, along with input from 13 retirees who tested the tool back in Ireland, all helped to inform subsequent iterations of the design. 

 “We just, honestly, started throwing out ideas and analyzed previous models that existed in the world,” added Jack.

In addition to the seed planters Moyo Nua is the process of creating educational workshops that will boost the business skills of students in developing countries with the goal of diversifying the sector strength of businesses in countries where agriculture dominates employment.  

Jack kept working on the planter, successfully inspiring other students like Catherine Hallinan, to work on progressing the idea and did so through Enactus. 

Jack’s seed planter won the National pitching competition at Enactus Ireland’s national finals and moved to win international fame where he was invited to present the project to UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, MIT Sloan School of Management at Dublin Castle. 

The need for and innovativeness of this project is evidenced in its success as the winner of the inaugural ‘Peace Through Trade’ competition hosted by The World Trade Center’s Association Foundation (WTCAF). The winner was announced at The World Trade Center’s Association’s (WTCA) 50th annual General Assembly (GA) in Querétaro, Mexico.

O’Connor and Hallinan were invited to present onstage at the General Assembly to close to 500 representatives from Member World Trade Centers and their local companies.

The Peace through Trade competition aims to identify and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders in World Trade Center (WTC) cities. Teams were asked to present original projects, products or other innovative ideas that exemplify and promote social innovation and sustainability through collaboration, fair trade, and ethical international business practices.

With Moyo Nua, Jack and Catherine have created a project that is equal parts practical, idealist and inspiring.

That is according to WTCAF Executive Director, Andrea Garwood, also Executive Director of WTC Trieste.

“The selection committee was immediately taken with the submission and we are immensely proud to name Moyo Nua as the first winner of the ‘Peace Through Trade’ competition.”

“Through innovation, a steadfast commitment to sustainability, and hard work, the Moya Nua team has created a successful business that is changing the world for the better,” said Rani Dabrai, Director of WTC Dublin. 

“These bright young minds represent the future of business, one that is global in vision and sustainable in practice, and we congratulate them both on this well-deserved honor.”

Having an article published in Forbes for the project was the icing on top for that academic year for the UL 3rd year student and further internationalizing the success for the social entrepreneur.  

Most recently, Jack was then chosen as Ireland United Nations Youth Delegate Team forming part of Ireland’s official delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. The aim of the public diplomacy initiative is to provide a platform for young people from Ireland to be represented at the United Nations, and to facilitate greater engagement with Irish youth on national and foreign policy issues.

During the course of this unique opportunity, Jack spent a number of weeks at the UN General Assembly in September, and represented the nation through various events, speeches, discussions and negotiations. 

Jack says his aim in life is to experience a journey “where I go beyond business and career, and truly make a widespread and deep impact on the world. Having the exposure to so many varied outlooks and perspectives through my experiences have been instrumental in providing me with quite a good grounding in my professional endeavours, and an added sense of realism into the intricacies and diligence required to create sustainable impact in an ever-changing global environment.”

The young entrepreneur noted the struggles but took them as building blocks to learn from. 

“I really struggled with managing setbacks and disappointments. I can largely attribute that to my sense of naivety, lack of experience, and the fact that I had only just left the school environment where I needed permission to simply use the restroom.

“Over time, I feel like my journey has brought a sense of both grounding and calm into how I approach every opportunity and issue, and my general outlook towards life in general. Managing stress and enjoying the processes and setbacks have allowed for more pragmatic progress to occur, as well as a lot more enjoyment experienced during it.

“With the amazing experience that I am gaining during this gap year, it is such a welcome reassurance to have somewhere like the University of Limerick supporting me; and despite the enjoyment right now, I am certainly excited to return to finish my undergraduate studies with UL. I have gained mentors, working colleagues, and friends from both faculty and students here in UL, and I am proud to be a member of this community,” Jack concluded. 
- Andrew Carey

 

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