A Conversation with Mike Elliott at TechnoServe – promoting sustainable mobile solutions for farmers

A Conversation with Mike Elliott at TechnoServe – promoting sustainable mobile solutions for farmers.


A Conversation with Mike Elliott at TechnoServe – promoting sustainable mobile solutions for farmers

TechnoServe is a non-profit organization that seeks to alleviate poverty in the developing world by partnering with enterprising people, to create and develop businesses that can generate income and jobs.  TechnoServe has operated in Kenya for four decades, helping build capacity for more than 500 small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, it is helping thousands of farmers “boost their incomes and connect to broader markets”.  In its role as a catalyst, TechnoServe is now promoting sustainable mobile solutions for agriculture development through the Connected Farmer Alliance (CFA), which began in October 2012.

We recently spoke with Mike Elliott, Director of the CFA project at TechnoServe, Kenya.

Hello Mike, can you tell us a bit about TechnoServe and its work in Kenya?

Kenya’s has witnessed a period of recent stability, with increased credit access to the private sector, investment in infrastructure, and growth in key sectors such as tourism, renewable energy, and information and communication technology (ICT).  At the same time, unemployment and poverty rates in the country remain high, with 35 percent of Kenyans living on less than a dollar per day, and food insecurity looms large due to poor farming methods and vulnerability to drought. TechnoServe is looking to address these challenges through market-led approaches. Currently, TechnoServe is focusing on livestock, coffee, horticulture, food processing, sustainable mobile for agriculture development and entrepreneurship development, with an emphasis on engaging the youth and women.

What is the Connected Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) and what does it do?

The CFA is a 3-year partnership between Vodafone, USAID, and TechnoServe focused on developing mobile solutions for agriculture. For us that falls into three categories:  1) mobile supply chain solutions that enable agribusinesses to engage more effectively with their smallholder suppliers, 2) mobile financial services to that smallholders, including savings, insurance and credit, and 3) identifying and supporting entrepreneurs that are engaging in the mAgri space.  With the Vodafone partnership, we are testing a model whereby private sector players can engage profitably and sustainably in the agriculture sector. At TechnoServe, we are doing the ground work to make sure it’s successful. For more information, see connected farmers alliance.

Why Vodafone?

For USAID and TechnoServe, engaging the private sector in program is a way to ensure long-term sustainability.  The work that CFA is doing in developing and scaling products will continue after the program ends, as the commercial products will be embedded in our local Vodafone partners where they will receive continued focus and investment. As for why Vodafone specifically, they’re really committed to agriculture, and understand the value of working with stakeholders like NGOs and the public sector.  They’re making a significant investment in this space, and are bringing the managerial focus required for us to be successful.  In addition, we get to leverage the M-Pesa system, a mobile money platform that Vodafone pioneered and is now leveraging for interesting and innovate uses. 

How are you going to gauge the success of the CFA program?

Well, there are two main success criteria. First, the products we develop must be launched and commercially supported in the market by Vodafone and their local partners.  This will prove our business model, and ideally crowd-in other players in the mobile agriculture space. Secondly, we would like to engage half a million farmers through our products by the end of the program.

What projects are Kellogg-CRTI Fellows involved with at TechnoServe for the summer?

Nirav is engaged in designing two mobile financial services that will address the unique needs of women farmers. Women do a large proportion of work on the farms but have a lower degree of control over the production.  He has been conducting field and desk research and holding focus groups of women to inform potential solutions. At present he’s identified two potential products and is building out the business case and pitch deck that will enable us to find a home for these products.

Preeza is identifying ways that a local tech incubator can better support entrepreneurs looking to develop Value-Added Services (VAS) for agriculture. She has developed a suite of services and events towards this end, and is embedding these within Safaricom, TechnoServe and the incubator itself. 

Greetings From Mumbai!

Greetings from Mumbai! It’s amazing that it’s almost the end of summer (and, sadly, the end of the CRTI Fellowship), but it’s been an action-packed last couple of months out here in India.

Unlike the rest of this year’s CRTI Fellows, I opted to head to India, and have spent my summer working with fellow CRTI-alum Bryan Lee’s company, Krishi Star. Getting here proved to be a little difficult, with a longer-than-usual visa turnaround process, and then a stressful few days trying to find proper housing, but I quickly settled into the city and the job.

On the work front, I’m working for Krishi Star, whose mission it is to improve the lives of impoverished rural farmers in India. We’re doing this right now by partnering with farmer-owned small businesses (food processing units, in particular), and utilizing their excess capacity to process whole peeled tomatoes, which are then marketed and sold under the Krishi Star brand.

Krishi Star Tomato Can

The company has already done a few production runs of the whole peeled tomatoes, and we’re looking to ramp up production again in a few weeks once tomato prices stabilize (it has felt like the biggest news ever here at Krishi Star, but in case you’ve not seen in the rest of the world, Indian tomato prices have gone a little crazy lately).

Just as importantly, though, the company is also looking to expand into new products and new markets, which has been the focus of my Fellowship this summer.

As we grow the business and prove out the front-end model of working with farmer-owned processing units and marketing under the Krishi Star brand, we’re actively looking to identify the next important product or crop. The entire team has been focused around identifying what that next product/crop will be, what market channel we’re going to focus on, how we’re going to connect the back-end to get it produced, and how we’re going to drive it to as many customers and consumers as possible. My main focus for the summer has been leading this process, guiding the other interns (some local, some from other US schools) and FTEs through market research and business strategy.

Outside of work, Mumbai has been an amazing experience, and certainly one I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate without the opportunity provided by the CRTI Fellowship. I’ve seen as much of the city as possible (a tall task in a metro area of over 20 million people), and have assimilated into the local forms of transportation, taking trains, buses, and rickshaws everywhere I need to go.

With one week left on the clock, I’ve got a fair bit to finish up, but all-in-all things have come together pretty well this summer. It’s an exciting time for the company, with a number of big things on the immediate horizon, and it’s been a great privilege to have been a part in shaping our future.

This final weekend will be an amazing culmination of the summer, with a team trip out to the rural areas of Gujarat, visiting farmers, farmer-owned producer companies, and a few other key contacts that will help to grow the business.

I didn’t know what to expect from this summer when I finally landed in Mumbai (which makes it easy to say that it’s exceeded my expectations), but looking back, I can say that there’s nothing I would have changed. The ups and the not-so-ups; the work and the outside-of-work; the commuting and the exploring. All of it made for an unforgettable CRTI Fellowship.

All the best from Mumbai!