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Lusayo Mwakatika grew his first garden at the age of 14. He harvested his own vegetables, sold them to friends and neighbors, and used the earnings as his allowance. It was a living extension of the passion for agriculture he developed while growing up in Malawi, where farming is a pillar of culture.

Lusayo Mwakatika will receive a degree in agricultural business management and a certificate in entrepreneurship in May. He is the outgoing president of Project Malawi, a UW student club, and he has been selected as student speaker for the spring commencement ceremony. Photo: Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

In May, Mwakatika will leave UW–Madison with a degree in agricultural business management and a certificate in entrepreneurship. His plan is to continue the work he started while on campus: renovating the agricultural sector in Malawi. And as he looks to his own future, he’ll be ushering his classmates into their own with the words he shares as student commencement speaker.

Mwakatika is the outgoing president of Project Malawi, a UW student club. The organization originally targeted medical infrastructure improvements in Malawi. But given that about 80% of Malawians engage in agriculture, he saw a better opportunity to help by shifting the group’s focus toward modernizing farming in his home country.

In Malawi, young people traditionally inherit land, so they are expected to participate in agriculture. But many struggle to use their land effectively. For example, local farmers will grow the same products that are imported from countries with more developed economies, so they’re not able to sell their products in local markets. It’s gaps like these that motivated Mwakatika.

“I think, mostly, I was almost angry, I would say, with the way opportunities were not being utilized in agriculture,” he says.

Even with such zeal to guide him toward agriculture, majoring in the field was not always a foregone conclusion for Mwakatika. After high school, he took a gap year to prepare for college. During that time, he attended a presentation by Hastings Nhlane, the CEO of a farming-focused organization in Malawi called ACADES. Nhlane discussed the vital role of agriculture; what Mwakatika heard solidified his decision to make it his focus of study.

Mwakatika later stumbled upon UW when he and his friend were searching for American universities with the prettiest campuses. The sights at UW captivated him. Eventually, he was offered scholarships at both UW and Michigan State University, but the strong international component in the agricultural programs at UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences drew him in. In 2017, Mwakatika’s first year, he joined the inaugural cohort of the King-Morgridge scholarship, which accepts six students each year — from African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian countries — who are passionate about giving back to their communities.

At UW, Mwakatika’s connection to ACADES continued. Through a partnership with Project Malawi, ACADES has been able to connect with UW expertise on a regular basis. The student organization is now working to get ACADES registered as a non-profit in the U.S., with hopes to further expand its access to American resources.

“Lusayo’s been able to seek a lot of counsel from the university for ACADES, and he’s been a conduit of communication that really gets their foot in the door,” says Project Malawi’s vice president, Elise Reiche, a senior majoring in life sciences communication and biology.

Public speaking and stand-up comedy have been passions for Lusayo Mwakatika. Here he is shown on stage at Comedy on State in Madison, Wis., where he has performed on “open mic” nights. Photo: Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

Most recently, the two organizations partnered to raise $4,600 for a COVID-19 relief fund that provides financial support for rural farmers harmed by the pandemic. And they’ve started a new fundraiser called Malawi Market, where proceeds from the sales of Malawian art will help young people start their own agricultural enterprises in Malawi. Project Malawi has also engaged in fundraising partnerships with Malawi Children’s Village and Project Cure.

Mwakatika’s contributions to ACADES extend beyond resource-sharing and fundraising: He has also founded an internship program for the organization. The program gives UW students the opportunity to travel to Malawi and explore their interests in agriculture and poverty relief. Interns also take on some of the workload for ACADES. With a staff of only about 10 serving more than 7,000 farmers, the support is more than welcome. The internship was virtual last year due to COVID-19, but it should resume in person as international travel restrictions lessen.

“This internship is mainly focused on helping ACADES fill several gaps in the operations of the organization and providing different perspectives from the interns from UW,” Mwakatika says.

After graduation, Mwakatika plans on moving back to Malawi and working with ACADES. His first goal is to make them more sustainable by developing a microfinance program. ACADES currently depends on donor loans, so they’re forced to turn away thousands of farmers due to lack of capital. Mwakatika is assisting in creating a credit system, encouraging short term loans, and allowing farmers to open bank accounts directly with ACADES.

“We want it to run as an entity on its own,” Mwakatika says. “If someone else donates for an increase in funding, great; but at the same time, we want it to survive, even if the donor fund dries out.”

Mwakatika’s time at UW is coming to an end, but his work with Project Malawi, as well as the close relationships he has developed with faculty and staff in CALS and across campus, will have a resounding impact on the university and its international involvement. Through these experiences, he’s gained plenty of wisdom to share in his commencement speech. And, as a national intercollegiate competitor for Wisconsin Speech and Debate, he has acquired the skill to share it well.

And he just might have his classmates laughing in their seats too. As a hobby, Mwakatika applies his speech skills to stand-up comedy. He has performed at the Comedy on State in Madison, at African Student Association events, and in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. When asked about his favorite one-liner, Mwakatika responds: “It’s like telling a parent to pick the favorite child!”