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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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!

Congratulations 2014 East Africa Fellows!

From left to right – Nirav Patel, Natasha Shih, Preeza Shrestha, and Fiona Handayani. Kellogg School of Management students Nirav, Natasha, and Preeza are working on projects with TechnoServe while Fiona is getting her feet wet at One Degree Solar. Good luck to them for the summer!

In the coming weeks we will feature the work being done by these organizations.

Working with Social Enterprises

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Over the past four years, CRTI Fellows have undertaken summer projects at various social enterprises and NGOs in the developing world. Our inaugural batch of Fellows left for India in the summer of 2011 with a strong desire to assist organizations dedicated to catalyzing social change in fields ranging from livelihood and education to agriculture and health. They spent ten weeks in New Delhi’s stifling summer heat working to help enterprises such as Drishtee, iFarm, d.light, and the American India Foundation. Drishtee (www.drishtee.com) is a social enterprise that works with marginalized communities and supports rural enterprises particularly micro-franchising. CRTI Fellow, Tobias Hurlimann, worked with Drishtee and developed a framework that organizations could use to assess micro-franchising opportunities in developing countries, determine the infrastructure and services needed, and the key success factors in operating a micro-franchise. This framework was the culmination of many weeks that Tobias spent interviewing Drishtee’s management, franchises, and entrepreneurs as well as findings from secondary research. More to come about other Fellows and projects in subsequent posts.  

Innovation in Development Fellowship Program at the Kellogg School of Management

In 2011, Professor Mohan Sawhney, founder and Director of the Center for Research in Technology and innovation (CRTI) at the Kellogg School of Management, launched a summer Fellowship program. Dubbed the Innovation in Development Fellowships, the program sought to advance the Center’s research in the uses of technology to enhance social and economic development in developing countries. A maximum of ten Fellowships was offered to first-year full-time MBA students interested in gaining an understanding and real world experience of the issues confronting social enterprises in the developing world. The first program in 2011 began with six Kellogg students undertaking their Fellowships at various social enterprises in India. Two years later, the program was expanded to East Africa, primarily Kenya. This year, we are excited to welcome five talented Fellows, four who are heading to Kenya and one to India. Good luck, Fellows!

Congratulations to the 2014 Innovation in Development Fellows!

The Center for Research in Technology and Innovation (CRTI) at the Kellogg School of Management is pleased to announce the 2014 batch of summer Fellows of the Innovation in Development Fellowship program. Our five Fellows will be working with social enterprises and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India and Kenya from mid-June through mid-August. We wish them well and look forward to hearing about their experiences over the next ten weeks.

Solar Energy Shines Bright in East Africa

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It’s 7PM in East Africa.  As the sun sets over rural fields and farming villages, thousands of homes, schools and small businesses are plunged into darkness. 589 million Africans live without access to reliable electricity, 40 million in Kenya alone. In its place the majority of Kenyans rely on paraffin lanterns to provide indoor lighting, a costly and highly dangerous substitute.

This summer I’ll be working with One Degree Solar (ODS), a technology company that manufactures and distributes household solar products to improve access to clean energy and connectivity in Africa. Recognizing that access to reliable energy drives productivity and improves healthcare, education, and commerce, ODS was created to meet the needs of low-income households and businesses that demand modern lighting, phone charging, entertainment, and technology. Conventional alternatives in the micro-solar market require specialized tools, training, and spare parts, making after-sales support difficult and expensive for both suppliers and customers. ODS products are purposefully designed to be easy to maintain and serviceable using locally sourced materials (e.g. standard motorbike battery), extending the useful lifespan of the product and therefore its impact.

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To achieve massive scale and marketing prominence in high-traffic areas, One Degree Solar recently partnered with The Coca Cola Company in Kenya, where it introduced BrightBox systems at 100 sales kiosks in May 2012 as part of an initial pilot. These microenterprises drastically reduced their energy spending, extended their operating hours, and increased revenues by an average of 15% – all while reducing their carbon footprint. I was honored to attend a recent Pan-Africa gathering at Coca Cola’s Africa headquarters in Nairobi, where the BrightBox was exhibited to country managers and regional bottlers.

Kiosk at Night with BB

Like many emerging industries, solar too has suffered from low quality entrants, damaging customer confidence. In an effort to rebuild consumer trust, Lighting Africa, a joint World Bank and IFC initiative, was born to independently promote quality assurance, supply distribution, and customer education.  In November 2012 the BrightBox passed rigorous quality control tests, affording it access to distribution partnership across Kenya. Lighting Africa is targeting expansion to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and CDR, creating new avenues for ODS to continue to grow outside of Kenya.

As demand begins to outpace supply, ODS faces its first ever stockout this month (yikes!), and I am reminded of the lessons in Ops 430. It’s exciting to be applying those lessons – along with pricing, promotion channels, working capital, shipping costs, currency devaluation – in a real world environment, with real bottom line consequences. Hopefully we’ll make the right choices as we look ahead to August!

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