When the paved road gave way to red-brown dirt and our Toyota started to bounce around more, Daniele and I knew we had almost made it to meet with a farmers’ cooperative in Kiambu county, Kenya. We were extremely excited but also somewhat worried what farmers would think about the smartphone application we had worked on for the past four months. The moment of truth had arrived.
If you follow this blog, you might have seen my earlier piece on our 5-day Google Venture sprint in Brighton and London in July. This is the account of the second episode of our collective journey to empower smallholder farmers in developing countries to become more climate-resilient. The main purpose of this second episode was making sure that our foreseen customers, smallholders in developing countries, would actually need and want what we were producing. In line with what agile, lean and customer-centric management practices prescribe, we wanted to test an early functional version to be able to adjust to their feedback – including stopping to work on this if they did not want it.
We had come a long way from the Marvel-based prototype we had developed in England and had actually programed an almost fully functional app (it was really Daniele who did all the IT development). It was far from perfect and the user interface was a far cry from what we wanted it to look like – but we had deliberately put ourselves against tight deadlines to make sure we would not squander valuable time. This also meant that we didn’t go too far down one path without getting feedback in order to adapt the app. Our app, called FarmBetter, aims to use survey and geolocation data from farmers to create an individual climate resilience profile and based on it identify personalized, scientifically solid solutions that can help improve the farmers’ climate resilience.
Samuel Ledermann had developed a survey to analyze feedback on the user interface, on how farmers wanted solutions to be displayed and on their interest for the app, and willingness to pay for the product. To be able to carry it out without internet we used Kobotoolbox a simple and effective survey tool I can only recommend to anyone doing surveys in offline contexts.
John Choptiany, Samuel and Daniele had also worked hard on the further development of the app and especially on different ways to display solutions for farmers. We brought three of these solution designs with us to figure out which ones farmers preferred. Shortly before the mission, Daniele had even implemented a function that would read-out text and should make FarmBetter more accessible for illiterate customers.
I had been supporting these processes and at the same time planning the testing mission in Kenya, where Samuel had a good contact – Dr. Samuel Njihia. He became our trusted and well-connected partner on the ground ensuring that we would meet the right farmers for our test and offering us his own insights as well.
We took three days to test our application with 30 farmers in Kiambu county, just north of Nairobi. They were all members of farmers’ cooperatives or groups and were mostly producing for local or national markets. We had aimed not to test with only subsistence farmers as we thought they would have extremely limited resources to potentially pay for and use our product. In the evenings, Daniele and I reconnected with my existing network in Kenya especially focusing on getting insights about IT developers and the startup ecosystem in Kenya.
So, what did we learn? – Yes, they want our app but they will be tough customers
Based on the data we collected, and our own impressions, farmers were extremely interested in getting tailored advice and most of them were even willing to pay a small sum for such insights. We also learned though that they would be tough customers. From the people with smartphones (around 30% of rural Kenyans) in our group, only about every fourth seemed to use apps other than WhatsApp and Facebook. That questioned our approach to strongly focus on an app. Secondly, our user interface did not help in empowering farmers to use the app, and lastly we got the impression that it would be virtually impossible to ask farmers to fill in a long (say 30 min to 2 hours) survey at the beginning of the app in order to assess their resilience and match solutions to their specific situation. For us, that means the mission was a success – we learned things we didn’t know before and we can now recalibrate our future work (of course it also means there’s more work ahead than we thought).
What did we learn about the Kenyan startup ecosystem? It seems to be alive and kicking – even though it has changed a lot over the last year. Funding and IT developers are available and a growing number of startups are active in the ag-tech field.
Where to go from here? – Founding an association, building a product and soft-launching in 2019
So where are we taking things now? First off – it is a bit unfortunate I am writing this blog again – because this whole thing was a real team effort. By the time I got to mid-December of 2018, I really needed a break and took it. At the same time, John took the lead on most things then – preparing a game plan post-Kenya and making sure we stayed on course! So, we said to ourselves: Challenge accepted, let’s take this forward and aim to soft-launch a product in Kenya in 2019. So, we founded a not-for-profit association in Switzerland, are now building our product, finding out how to create revenue with it and working out if we can get funded and can get some help on the IT side. So, if you know someone who might be interested to invest in FarmBetter – be it money or time please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Gräub works at the intersection of technology, nature and agriculture to positively impact the world. In this, he loves to connect unusual dots and people to creatively change existing structures and approaches.
His over 8 years of work experience include working for start-ups, corporates an NGO, the UN and a government. He is a change agent with over seven years of experience in policy work, research and managing projects within start-ups, an NGO, the UN and a government agency.
Benjamin originally studied International Affairs & Governance as well as International Management and just loved the ETH WFSC summer school he attended in India in 2014.