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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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AppDate: Shedding light in our times of darkness

SEAN BACHER’S app roundup highlights two load-shedding apps, along with South AfriCAM, NBA 2K Mobile, Virgin Mobile’s Spot 3.0 and SwiftKey.

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Load Shedding Notifier

With all the uncertainty about when South Africans will next be plunged into darkness by Eskom, the Load Shedding Notifier tries its best to keep up with Eskom’s schedule. The app is very simple to use. Download it, type an area in and click the save button. The app automatically tells you what load shedding stage Eskom is on, the times you can expect to start lighting candles and for how long to burn them.

Multiple areas can be added and one can switch between the different stages to see how each one will affect a certain area.

A grid status is also displayed, showing how strained the country’s electrical network is.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

EskomSePush Load Shedding App

EskomSePush does much the same as the Load Shedding Notifier, but allows multiple cities to be tracked. However, they may just want to rethink the name of the app if they want wider respectability.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

South AfriCAM

South AfriCAM enables users to add branded stickers and frames from popular lifestyle magazine titles to their posts, including Huisgenoot, YOU, Drum, Move!, TRUE LOVE, Women’s Health and Men’s Health. 

In the process, they can earn JETPoints for their social influence: through the app’s built-in JET8 social currency, users are rewarded for their engagement. For every in-app like, comment, and share, users earn JETPoints, which can be used to redeem products online or over the counter across more than 2 500 retail stores in South Africa. Users are additionally awarded JETPoints for cross-posting onto external social media networks.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

Click here to read about console quality graphics on a mobile phone, Virgin Money payments made easier, and an app that redesigns the keyboard.

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Drones to drive
Western Cape agritech

Aerobotics is set to change how farmers treat their crops by using drones and machine learning, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Western Cape is poised to be a hotbed of innovation in the agritech sector, with drone piloting set to playing a major role in in the tech start-up scene.

This is the view of Tim Willis, chief operating officer of pioneering drone company Aerobotics, a Cape Town drone company recognised as a world leader in agritech.

“Drone piloting is a key skill that feeds into the value chain of the budding 4th Industrial Revolution,” said Willis. “Cape Town and the Western Cape is uniquely positioned to be the melting pot for innovation in the agritech sector, as a leading agricultural exporter and a hub for creative tech start-ups.”

He was speaking at AeroCon, a drone expo organised by Aerobotics and held in Johannesburg this week aimed at providing opportunities for drone pilots to apply their skills in South Africa, and to show how drones are being used to collect data on crops. 

The event was supported by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Wesgro, PROMMAC, MicaSense, and Rectron, among other

“We’re starting to sign up farmers across the country,” said Willis. “It’s exciting because farmers are starting to use drone technology on their farms. When a farmer wants a drone flown, they want it flown [now] so it’s important for us to capture that data as quickly as possible to show that drones are fast and effective.”

According to aerobotics, drone technology can help farmers reduce pesticide use on their crops by up to 30%. The result is environmentally friendly farming, reducing stressed crops and a healthier harvest. 

“We use aerial imagery from drones to recreate a 3D model of every single tree on a farmer’s orchard,” said Willis. “We’ve done this for millions of trees and it starts to give the farmers metrics of what they’re doing. We provide them with the health of the trees, the height, the volume, the canopy area, which enable the farms to make decisions on what to do next.”

Click here to read more about AeroCon and what it offers to those wanting to get into the drone industry.

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