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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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How we use phones to avoid human contact

A recent study by Kaspersky Lab has found that 75% of people pick up their connected device to avoid conversing with another human being.

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Connected devices are becoming essential to keeping people in contact with each other, but for many they are also a much-needed comfort blanket in a variety of social situations when they do not want to interact with others. A recent survey from Kaspersky Lab has confirmed this trend in behaviour after three-quarters of people (75%) admitted they use a device to pretend to be busy when they don’t want to talk to someone else, showing the importance of keeping connected devices protected under all circumstances. 

Imagine you’ve arrived at a bar and you’re waiting for your date. The bar is busy, and people are chatting all around you. What do you do now? Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know? Grab your phone from your pocket or handbag until your date arrives to keep yourself busy? Why talk to humans or even make eye-contact with someone else when you can stare at your connected device instead?

The truth is, our use of devices is making it much easier to avoid small talk or even be polite to those around us, and new Kaspersky Lab research has found that 72% of people use one when they do not know what to do in a social situation. They are also the ‘go-to’ distraction for people even when they aren’t trying to look busy or avoid someone’s eye. 46% of people admit to using a device just to kill time every day and 44% use it as a daily distraction.

In addition to just being a distraction, devices are also a lifeline to those who would rather not talk directly to another person in day-to-day situations, to complete essential tasks. In fact, nearly a third (31%) of people would prefer to carry out tasks such as ordering a taxi or finding directions to where they need to go via a website and an app, because they find it an easier experience than speaking with another person.

Whether they are helping us avoid direct contact or filling a void in our daily lives, our constant reliance on devices has become a cause for panic when they become unusable. A third (34%) of people worry that they will not be able to entertain themselves if they cannot access a connected device. 12% are even concerned that they won’t be able to pretend to be busy if their device is out of action.

Dmitry Aleshin, VP for Product Marketing, Kaspersky Lab said, “The reliance on connected devices is impacting us in more ways than we could have ever expected. There is no doubt that being connected gives us the freedom to make modern life easier, but devices are also vital to help people get through different and difficult social situations. No matter what your ‘connection crutch’ is, it is essential to make sure your device is online and available when you need it most.”

To ensure your device lifeline is always there and in top health – no matter what the reason or situation – Kaspersky Security Cloud keeps your connection safe and secure:

·         I want to use my device while waiting for a friend – is it secure to access the bar’s Wi-Fi?

With Kaspersky Security Cloud, devices are protected against network threats, even if the user needs to use insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots. This is done through transferring data via an encrypted channel to ensure personal data safety, so users’ devices are protected on any connection.

·         Oh no! I’m bored but my phone’s battery is getting low – what am I going to do?

Users can track their battery level thanks to a countdown of how many minutes are left until their device shuts down in the Kaspersky Security Cloud interface. There is also a wide-range of portable power supplies available to keep device batteries charged while on-the-go.

·         I’ve lost my phone! How will I keep myself entertained now?

Should the unthinkable happen and you lose or have your phone stolen, Kaspersky Security Cloud can track and protect your device from data breaches, for complete peace of mind. Remote lock and locate features ensure your device remains secure until you are reunited.

 

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Five key biometric facts

Due to their uniqueness, fingerprints are being used more and more to quickly identify and ensure the security of customers. CLAUDE LANGLEY, Regional Sales Manager, for Africa at HID Global Biometrics, outlines five facts about the technology.

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How many times in a day are you expected to identify yourself? From when you arrive at work you are required to sign in, visiting your bank, receiving healthcare services… The list is endless. When a system knows who you are, you are able to do any number common, everyday activities. Your identity is unique and precious. It is also easily stolen and the target of many hackers across the globe. Technology is constantly evolving alongside the criminal element, always looking for ways to protect data and identity. One such solution happens to be biometrics and it is rapidly gaining traction in our increasingly complex modern world.

Reliable, secure and fundamentally YOU, unique biometric traits such as fingerprints are being used by banks, enterprises and consumers to verify identity. Biometric solutions offer significant identity protection because they use unique biological details to ensure an account is only accessed by the account holder, a door only opened by the owner. Here are five things that are little known about this technology…

  • The uncut identity. Your fingerprint is unique to you. Nobody can use a copy of it to impersonate you. Good technology is capable of scanning down into the layers of the fingertip to differentiate unique elements of a person’s fingerprint, this data is then encrypted and used as a key to unlocking whichever physical or virtual door that the biometric system protects.
  • The living proof. No, there is nothing to the stories of fingerprints being used without their owner’s knowledge or permission. Biometric solutions can use specific variables to determine if the finger used to access the system is that of a present, living person.  A copy or a fake cannot be used to access a cutting-edge biometric solution.
  • Easy and convenient. Queues and documents and paperwork may well be a thing of the past should biometrics take a firmer grip of government and banking systems. The process of registering is easy, and access to identity documents and records is yours alone.
  • Security blanket. A thousand passwords and a hundred post-it notes stuck on walls and drawers.  An excel file with a list of sites and applications and their corresponding passwords, all a thing of the past.  Nobody needs to remember their password with biometrics, they only need to show up.
  • Anywhere is cool. Schools, airports, networks, offices, homes, toilets, banks, libraries, governments, border controls, immigration services, call centres, hospitals and even clubs and pubs – knowing “who” matters and biometrics can quickly and conveniently confirm your identity where needed.

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