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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 to take on IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming, whether you like it or not and organisations today will look to platforms and services that help them manage and analyse the streams of data coming from connected devices, says RONALD RAVEL, Director B2B South Africa, Toshiba South Africa.

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Today, we are witnessing an explosion in IoT deployments and solutions and are moving towards a world where almost everything you can imagine will be connected. While this opens the door to many possibilities it also comes with its own challenges such as privacy and security.

The Internet has become an integral part of everyday life; it has been a free for all on a daily basis. IoT is a difficult concept for many people to wrap their minds around. Essentially, nearly every business will be affected.

Managing vast quantities of data across increasingly mobile workforces can be tremendously beneficial if done well, but equally can be cumbersome and ineffective if not managed properly. This is why technologies such as mobile edge computing are becoming increasingly popular, helping to increase the prevalence of secure mobile working and data management in the age of IoT.

Unlocking IoT

The evolution of IoT, despite rapid and ongoing technological innovation, is still very much in its fledgling stages. Its potential, though, is demonstrated by the fact that by 2020, Bain anticipates a significant shift in uptake, with roughly 80 per cent of adoptions at that point to have progressed to the stage of either ‘proof of concept’ or extensive implementation. This means that technological innovation in IoT for the enterprise is progressing at a similarly fast rate with many of these solutions being developed with utilities, engineering, manufacturing and logistics companies in mind.

Processing at the edge

For IoT to be adopted at the rate predicted, technology which does not overwhelm current or even legacy systems must be implemented. Mobile edge computing solves this. Such solutions offer processing power at the edge of the network, helping firms with a high proportion of mobile workers to reduce operational strain and latency by processing the most critical data at the edge and close to its originating source. Relevant data can then be sent to the cloud for observation and analysis, thereby reducing the waves of ‘data garbage’ which has to be processed by cloud services.

A logistics manager can feasibly monitor and analyse the efficiency of warehouse operations, for example, with important data calculations carried out in real-time, on location, and key data findings then sent to the cloud for centrally-located data scientists to analyse.

The work of wearables

The potential of IoT means it not only has the scope to change the way people work, but also where they work. While widespread mobile working is a relatively new trend in industries such as banking and professional services, for CIOs in sectors where working on the move is inherent – such as logistics and field maintenance – mobility is high on the agenda.

Wearables – and specifically smart glasses – have started to gain traction within the business world. With mobile edge computing solutions acting as the gateway, smart glasses such as Toshiba’s assisted reality AR 100 viewer solution have been designed to benefit frontline and field-based workers in industries such as utilities, manufacturing and logistics. In the renewable energy sector, for example, a wind turbine engineer conducting repairs may use assisted reality smart glasses to call up the schematics of the turbine to enable a hands-free view of service procedures. This means that when a fault becomes a barrier to repair, the engineer is able to use collaboration software to call for assistance from a remote expert and have additional information sent through, thereby saving time and money by eradicating the need for extra personnel to be sent to the site.

The time is ripe for organisations to look to exploit the age of IoT to improve the productivity and safety of their workers, as well as the end service delivered to customers. In fact, Toshiba’s recent ‘Maximising Mobility’ report found that 49 per cent of organisations believe their sector can benefit from the hands-free functionality of smart glasses, while 47 per cent expect them to deliver improved mobile working and 41 per cent foresee better collaboration and information sharing. Embracing IoT technologies such as mobile edge computing and wearable solutions will be an essential step for many organisations within these verticals as they look to stay on top of 21st century working challenges.

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Now download a bank account

Absa has introduced an end-to-end account opening for new customers, through the Absa Banking App, which can be downloaded from the Android and Apple app stores. This follows the launch of the world first ChatBanking on WhatsApp service.

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This “download your account” feature enables new customers to Absa, to open a Cheque account, order their card and start transacting on the Absa Banking App, all within minutes, from anywhere and at any time, by downloading it from the App stores.

“Overall, this new capability is not only expected to enhance the customer’s digital experience, but we expect to leverage this in our branches, bringing digital experiences to the branch environment and making it easier for our customers to join and bank with us regardless of where they may be,” says Aupa Monyatsi, Managing Executive for Virtual Channels at Absa Retail & Business Banking.

“With this innovation comes the need to ensure that the security of our customers is at the heart of our digital experience, this is why the digital onboarding experience for this feature includes a high-quality facial matching check with the Department of Home Affairs to verify the customer’s identity, ensuring that we have the most up to date information of our clients. Security is supremely important for us.”

The new version of the Absa Banking App is now available in the Apple and Android App stores, and anyone with a South African ID can become an Absa customer, by following these simple steps:

  1. Download the Absa App
  2. Choose the account you would like to open
  3. Tell us who you are
  4. To keep you safe, we will verify your cell phone number
  5. Take a selfie, and we will do facial matching with the Department of Home Affairs to confirm you are who you say you are
  6. Tell us where you live
  7. Let us know what you do for a living and your income
  8. Click Apply.

 

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