August 18, 2020

How Agritech and Digital Literacy Are Transforming Farming in Uganda

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With Africa’s population set to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, agricultural efficiency is critical to sustaining population growth. 

In Uganda, according to the World Bank, agriculture contributes to 25% of the national GDP and employs 70% of the population. 

Women who make up 55% of the economically active population, play a vital role in Uganda’s rural agricultural sector—contributing more than 75% of the total farm labor.

In these rural areas that produce most of Uganda’s agriculture, access to information and digital literacy is limited. 

As a result, increasing productivity requires a combination of tech solutions and tech education. 

m-Omulimisa is an Agtech company that leverages mobile technology, farmer networks, and partnerships to provide agriculture services to smallholder farmers in Uganda. 

Recognizing that literacy limited their impact, Pinno Ivan Louis Digital Strategist at m-Omulimisa launched Digital Woman Uganda, a Digital Rights Advocacy organization that aims to equip women/girls with the tech and digital literacy skills to be competitive and self-sustaining in the Digital World.

I spoke with Pinno Ivan Louis, Co-founder of Digital Woman Uganda, about the agritech startup space, the value of participating in pitch competitions, and tech education for women.


How did your journey lead you to m-Omulimisa?

m-Omulimisa began in 2016 with my co-founder and friend, Daniel Ninsiima, while we were still in university. We both grew up on farms, and we saw how hard it was for smallholder farmers to get access to information. 

It started as a nonprofit to address the information gap. We built a virtual consultation platform that connected farmers to extension experts who could answer their queries.

The reason being, smallholder farmers need all kinds of information to run their farms successfully, from weather forecasting to knowing where to purchase specific products.

For example, in 2017, Uganda had a Fall Armyworm outbreak, and the worm damaged millions of hectares of maize crop. 

Some of the farmers were not informed, and many of those who were, bought the wrong fertilizers and pesticides. With our model, we can quickly disseminate information to farmers in situations like these. 

Also, since many smallholder farmers are illiterate and don’t speak English, our algorithm connects farmers to extension workers who speak their local language.


What services does m-Omulimisa provide to smallholder farmers? 

Extension Services: 

Extension workers offer advice and information to smallholder farmers to help them solve their problems and improve their agriculture productivity. 

In Uganda, the ratio of an extension worker to a smallholder farmer is one to 1,800. I mean, how do you expect one extension worker to serve 1,800 smallholder farmers? It’s not practical without technology.

Moreover, we connect smallholder farmers to extension workers using two primary methods, USSD (8228) and voice messages. With voice messages, farmers can record a message, which goes to the extension worker, who replies in the same format.  

Microfinance:

We’ve created partnerships with microfinance institutions. In Africa, most smallholder farmers are women, so many don’t have access to credit. These microfinance institutions offer farmers loans in the form of seed, fertilizer, etc. 

Insurance:

We’ve also created partnerships with insurance companies. We want farmers to continue farming and know they’ll be protected, so we introduced insurance packages.

In the beginning, extension services were free because we expected to earn from the other models, like market linkages, insurance, etc. But surprisingly, it is what interests most people.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building m-Omulimisa?

The first challenge was digital literacy. We speak technology, but most of the people we were building the solution for were not literate, which made consuming our services a challenge. This realization is what ultimately inspired me to launch Digital Woman Uganda.

Digital literacy also extends to the government. There is so much bureaucracy in the African government when it comes to technology. They’re a little bit slow and shy about using technology to improve their services. 

Second, visibility. It’s one thing to build an app, and it’s another to have users. With the digital literacy challenges of our customers, it was difficult to scale our idea across Uganda. 

The third is capital, which is a challenge that I hear other startups talk about, but I don’t think it is one. I don’t believe a startup can fail from a lack of capital because someone can give you money to build something, and it can still fail to scale. 

I believe that if you come up with an idea and it works, the money will follow. It’s about the problem you’re solving. 

Is it a real problem? Is your solution the right one? Is it scalable and monetizable? Will an investor get a return? These are just a few questions you have to ask yourself.  


What role has pitch competitions played in the development/growth of m-Omulimisa?

We’ve gone through tons of competitions in Africa. The last one we did was the Africa Tech Summit in Kigali, and the first capital we got was from Big Ideas in California.  

Our most significant competition was winning first place in the Agricultural Productivity category for the World Bank’s Agriculture Cluster Development Project for Uganda. We won $300,000 to scale the model across the country because right now, we’re in 10 of Uganda’s 134 districts. 

Moreover, competitions are something I recommend to all startups. There are so many on the internet that you can apply to. Even if you don’t win, you’ll learn a lot, and it will connect you to possible investors. 

People shy away from these competitions because there’s a lot of writing. They may have an idea in their head, but putting it on paper and then actually trying to convince someone that it’s right is different.

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What do you believe are the keys to building successful software solutions in Africa

To develop a solution for Africa, you need to be in Africa. You’re not going to sit in the US or UK and say you’re going to create a solution that solves Africa’s problems. 

No, first you need to be in Africa. You need to understand its people and their problems. Then come up with a solution. 

Second, make sure the solution is affordable for your customers, and it’s user friendly. It took us two years to fully understand our customers from their income to their technical skills. 

In that research, we discovered that some could afford data-driven services on an application, while others could not. So we found ways to provide services to them at a lower cost. 

Also, with insurance, we leveraged the telecom infrastructure that was already there. Since telecom companies were already providing mobile money services, we tapped into that model. We created a USSD whereby it can divert funds from their e-wallet to make their insurance payment.

Nonetheless, building successful software solutions in Africa is all about understanding your customer and creating workable products that are user friendly.


What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired Digital Woman Uganda (DWI)? 

Digital Women Uganda was launched in 2019, and the inspiration came from taking a step back and looking at my journey. I primarily work with ladies, 85% of our smallholder farmers are women, but most of them are not digitally literate enough to consume our services or others. Some can’t even text a message with their phone.

But when you look at the new normal that we’re living in, everything is happening online. So I thought about how we can get them ready for the tech revolution. 

We explored several methods, and what we decided on was outreach. We have foot soldiers in the different communities that use m-Omulimisa, and they assist the women on how to use our application, purchase insurance, etc. 

We’ve created jobs for these youths. With our insurance model, they get a commission from the farmer’s insurance payment. 

We also created a network of women from different universities who run workshops in the different villages to help them get ready for the new normal by equipping them with the skills they need to consume the services offered digitally.

They teach them how to use the essential technology tools. The internet, text messaging, WhatsApp, Google Hangout, etc. 


Built In Africa? What does that mean to you, and what are your thoughts on tech in Uganda? 

Built In Africa represents innovations that are built in Africa for Africa.  

The tech ecosystem in Uganda is growing, and our government is starting to be more proactive. So there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Yesterday we had a chat with the National Information Technology Association ministry. One of the members told me that since the start of COVID-19, they’d laid 4000 km of fiber cables to increase internet access across the country.

I think COVID’19 has shaken these guys up. But overall, the ecosystem is growing. We have startups in different sectors, companies in agriculture, transport like SafeBoda, FinTechs, etc. Nonetheless, Uganda’s tech scene is promising.

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