Mwaura Livingstone Nganga
Science as a vehicle of positive social and economic change
Note: Mwaura Livingstone Nganga was a Business Development Fellow in 2019/20. This interview was conducted in winter 2020.
Mwaura Livingstone Nganga works at the UC Davis Genome Center and is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Plant Biology Graduate Group. He became interested in biology and agriculture while growing up in Kabete, Kenya. After obtaining his B.S. in biochemistry and biotechnology from the University of Missouri, Saint Louis, Nganga enrolled at UC Davis to acquire the skills necessary for translating science into a vehicle of positive social and economic change in society.
In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.
I conduct research on haploid induction, a phenomenon that occurs naturally in potatoes. Haploid induction can be harnessed through biotechnology to accelerate crop breeding (up to three or four times faster). It is an extremely rare reproductive biology quirk where plant offspring develop with only half the number of chromosomes of a normal parent plant. Plants with fewer chromosomes are bred more easily, a boon for plant breeders. I’m exploring the genetic and molecular basis of this poorly understood phenomenon.
Careerwise, I am interested in using science and technology to increase the economic well-being of ordinary citizens.
I am exploring using technology to sustainably increase farm output, reduce post-harvest losses, streamline the farm-to-market supply chain, and open up new markets for small farmers in East Africa.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
The impact and the chance to positively change the economic and social well-being of demographics that have traditionally been underserved in the world. I grew up in a community of small farmers, and I know how lack of opportunities continues to waste great talent and ambition.
I want to create opportunities and change some of the lives impacted by these opportunity gaps. I am extremely privileged to have the opportunities I do, and I want to pass such to others.
What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?
Sometimes, entrepreneurs think they have a great product. However, it is important to make sure that the product is aligned with and serves a real need in society. While this may seem obvious, it is not. It is also critical to realize and accept that entrepreneurs cannot control all—actually most—aspects of their products and the market environment.
Entrepreneurs’ collaborations and partnerships are the best predictor of success.
What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?
Keeping your ideas secret prevents you from making the important connections needed for success.
What is most valuable about attending classes at the Graduate School of Management alongside MBA students?
Scientists easily get bogged down in ensuring the most potent
technology, science or product. However exciting the
science/technology potency might be, it has little bearing on
consumer preferences—all the consumer wants is affordability and
relief. Business skills are essential to ensure you deliver
affordable relief without burning the company or product. And sometimes, you do not need a perfect product to achieve that.
What is the most useful thing you have learned in the GSM classroom?
You need to go out in the world and interact with potential customers to see if they need and, more importantly, can afford your product. This can save you time, money and the agony of developing a product or process that no one is willing to use or buy.
Have you been attending the Big Bang! workshops?
I have attended Big Bang! workshops in the past. For now, I am mostly focused on using what I learned then to craft my product.
Science is useless unless deployed in the world for use by lay people. Business remains the most efficient way to bring science to the most people.
How will your experiences as a Business Development Fellow help you to change the world?
I have always recognized the need of science in the world. However, all science is useless unless deployed in the world for use by lay people. Business remains the most efficient way to bring science to the most people. Through the fellowship, I am gaining business skills that will allow me to bring change in the world using science and technology.