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The Kenyan woman who is using tech to change farming

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A young woman with a burning vision to transform the outlook for small farmers in Africa is making a global impact, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Leonida Mutuku is just 28, but is already becoming recognised as one of the pioneers of digital technology in Africa.

This is all the more startling in that she has ventured into an area in which technology and innovation has been the preserve of large conglomerates and multinationals.

She runs a small company in Nairobi called Intelipro, which she describes as “a boutique data-science consultancy”. Her profile describes her as “a technology researcher, data scientist, entrepreneur, investor and futurist”.

It all sounds visionary and idealistic, but the combination is making a real-world impact on a massive scale. More than 25 000 small-scale farmers are using a platform she created to help plan, finance and sell their crops. The only tool they need to make the connection is their mobile phones.

In just two years, Mutuku has made waves that are being felt internationally. She was invited by cloud computing giants VMware to share the keynote stage at its recent VMworld conference in Barcelona. The focus of the event is on the future of cloud computing and data centres. Intellipro uses elements of the VMware cloud platform, and was highlighted as a case study in how small businesses in emerging market can make a massive impact.

Leonida Mutuku, founder of Inelipro and eGranary.

Leonida Mutuku, founder of Inelipro and eGranary.

How did she come so far in such a short time? The superficial answer is that cloud computing makes it possible to scale up a small business to a massive level, in a short time, with limited resources.

But beneath that technical layer lurks a story that is almost an archetype of entrepreneurialism in Africa.

Mutuku studied actuarial science at the University of Nairobi, but realised she wanted to do more than crunch numbers: she wanted to make a difference. She enrolled for a Masters of Business Analytics and Big Data at a business school in Madrid, which allowed her to attend classes every six months while she built her business.

Armed with this formidable set of qualifications, she “slowly transitioned into programming”, and began working with the legendary Nairobi technology incubator, the iHub.

“I was interested in how to use computers to analyse data, and that veered into the big data space. I was working with the  iHub, supporting a data science lab, and grew it to $250 000 revenue in one year. I was interested in applying data science in industry, as very few businesses in Africa use data to drive decision. That was the motivation to start Intellipro, to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to use data to drive customer demand.”

Intellipro developed automated risk models, using a form of artificial intelligence (AI) to help financial institutions provide credit and micro-financing to SMEs. But it was when she began applying her data science to agriculture that the penny truly dropped regarding the power of big data, the cloud and AI in financing farmers.

“We rolled out this mobile-based platform called eGranary, using USSD short codes. One can access the application from any phone by dialing *492#. When farmers register on it, we verify their identity through their mobile number. They are then able to log the size of the farm, production data, how many cages of seed, how much fertiliser, how much they have paid workers, and so on. It’s like a diary for the production process.

“At harvesting time, they log how much they harvested. We include data from the East African Farmers Federation, which represents 20-million farmers, to predict their productivity, based on similar farmers’ productivity. We can then see how much to give them in terms of credit for seed or fertiliser.

“In some cases, we don’t give them the cash, but pay a distributor. So they apply for a loan, also through the platform and, if approved, they go to the distributor and collect their seeds and fertiliser.”

Intellipro is currently working with soy, bean and maize farmers, but the platform is more broadly applicable. Its magic comes in its power of prediction, and the benefits that can bring to farmers.

“When they are planning to harvest, and we have the data , we can give them a portion of the payment upfront, even before the offtaker – the broker who buys a portion of future production – takes it.”

This is only the beginning of Mutuku’s plans for farmers.

“Our current product is supporting them in terms of financial services and getting credit, but where it’s going is to help make better predictions from productivity data they are logging. Right now the individual farmer doesn’t get predictive analytics, so the next step is, how do we give back intelligence based on what they have logged with us?”

This idea is that the platform will automatically send out alerts, based on what the farmer is tracking, with reminders to apply fertiliser. It will even, based on productivity data coming in from other farmers, advise them to try a new or different brand of fertiliser.

The platform is one year old, it has 25 000 farmers using it, and applicants have received $150 000 in credit over two cycles of six months each.

Mutuku points out that, ironically, she is no agriculture expert.

“Ultimately, our expertise is in the credit and risk profiling, in analytics, not so much directly in agriculture. But this is close to our hearts because of the impact it has, and because we are investing in the lending future.  We’re currently in Kenya, Uganada, Tanzania, Rwanda through the EAFF, but there are so many people who could benefit across Africa.

“Our next step? To see how soon we can penetrate South Africa.”

How did eGranary get so big so fast? See: The cloudy secret to scaling up

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

 

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Welcome to world of 2099

The world of 2099 will be unrecognisable from the world of today, but it can be predicted, says one visionary. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK met him in Singapore.

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Futuristic structures tower over the landscape. Giant, alien-looking trees light up with dazzling colours amid the hundreds of plant species that grow up their trunks. Cosmetic stores sell their wares via public touch-screens, with products delivered instantly in drawers below the screens.

This is not a vision of the future. It is a sample of Singapore today. But it is also an inkling of the world we may all experience in the future.

Singapore was the venue, last week, of the World Cities Summit, where engineers, politicians, investors and visionaries rubbed shoulders as they talked about the strategies and policies that would enhance urban living in the future.

As part of the Summit, global payment technologies leader Mastercard hosted a small media briefing by one of Singapore’s leading thinkers about the future, Dr Damian Tan, managing director of Vickers Venture Partners. The company’s slogan “We invest in the extraordinary,” offers a small clue to Tan’s perspective.

“We look as far forward as 2099 because, as a venture capital firm, we invest in the long term,” he tells a group of journalists from Africa and the Middle East. “Companies explode in growth because there is value in the future. If there is no growth, they won’t explode.”

The big question that the Smart Cities Summit and Mastercard are trying to help answer is, what will cities look like in the year 2099? Tan can’t give an exact answer, but he offers a framework that helps one approach the question.

“If you want to look at 81 years into the future, and understand the change that will come, you need to double that amount and look into the past. That takes us to 1856. The difference between then and now is the difference you can expect between now and 2099.”

Click here or on the page link below to read on: Page 2: Soldiers and Health in 2099.

  •    Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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Street art goes electric

Kaspersky Lab and British street artist D*Face have unveiled the first-ever “art helmet” design at the Formula E finale for electric cars in New York.

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The ‘Save The World’ helmets will be raced by DS Virgin Racing’s drivers, Sam Bird and Alex Lynn, as they traverse the New York street circuit during the final races of the Formula E season.

The announcement signals the first art helmet by a Formula E team, continuing the heritage of art in motorsport and the cybersecurity brand’s commitment to contemporary art, creativity and innovation. D*Face took inspiration from Kaspersky Lab’s tagline, “A Company To Save The World”, and hopes that his colourful work will inspire people to take positive action.

D*Face will announce his first-ever art car design with a custom-made livery for the DS Virgin Racing Team. Its design will be released at the “Art Goes Green” event after Saturday’s race. The helmets and art car are the latest installations in the “Save the World” collection, following a major permanent public mural that was installed in Brooklyn, New York, in May.

D*Face, whose real name is Dean Stockton, said: “It is exciting to work with Kaspersky Lab on this project and create art with a real message of hope for a better future. After all, this is our world and we need to look after it. It will take every one of us to make a real lasting, impactful change. I love the mentality of the DS Virgin Racing Team and that of Formula E by showcasing sport in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, but is still just as exhilarating and fun.

“It is time for us all to stand together and make a change… be that stopping data steals, climate change, plastic waste or using damaging fuels. I want everyone to make a pledge to do one thing that will help make a change.”

As a sponsor of DS Virgin Racing Team, Kaspersky Lab is responsible for protecting the team’s devices against cyber threats. The company sees the technical environment in the global sport of Formula E as the next frontier in furthering its research and development of new technologies to keep vehicles secure in the digital world.

Sylvain Filippi, Managing Director at DS Virgin Racing, said: “The whole team fully supports this great initiative and our thanks got to Kaspersky and D*Face for their collaboration. It’s an honour to have such an innovative artist bring his talents to bear in our team ahead of the season-finale; the car, drivers’ crash helmets and mural all look amazing.”

Aldo Fucelli Pessot del Bo, Head of Global Partnerships and Sponsorships at Kaspersky Lab added: “There is a need for innovation on a global scale, both in contemporary art and in the fast-growing sport of Formula E. Now, for the first time ever, Kaspersky Lab is proudly bringing together the two sectors in an effort to Save the World and unleash creativity, encourage freedom of expression and further innovation.”

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