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. 


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