The seven use cases prioritized in Kenya’s Digital Agriculture Strategy

A small scale farmer’s field with Maize and darkening clouds in Lower Eastern Kenya / credits: John Kieti

A report titled Digitization and Coordination of Kenya’s Agricultural Sector Data was completed in July 2019. It is a guide for implementing the data and innovation flagship number 8 of the country’s Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy (ASTGS). I got my hands on a copy which was recently publicly available on the Kilimo Open Data portal (download full report (7.9mb pdf)). In this article, I refer to the report as a digital agriculture strategy for Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation (MoALFI).  It is the closest I see to Kenya’s national strategy for harnessing the transformative power of digitalizing agriculture. The report, authored by global consulting giant McKinsey and funded by AGRA on behalf of MoALFI prioritizes seven (7) use cases to be implemented. It is a four year plan covering the fiscal year 2019/20 to 2022/23. I find no in-depth coverage of the seven prioritized use cases, so I feel it’s “better late than never” to write about them, especially considering typical delays in Government strategy implementation. In this post I provide my nuanced summary of what I see as the rationale, and design of the use cases. This is more so as the use cases (at least the second one) typify instances of what my earlier published research conceptualised as an aggregator platform for digital services in agriculture.

Use case 1: Improving farmer inputs subsidization

This use case is designed to improve input subsidization programs supported by the Government and other funders. The problems to be solved under this use case are that government subsidised inputs are not necessarily aligned to soil health management principles, and the unintended creation of a dual-pricing system aggravated through diversion of subsidized inputs by cartels. Other problems to be solved across the stages of the existing subsidy system include rent-seeking behavior hurting farmers, and fertilizer delivery being delayed. The key problem solving elements of this use case are, (a) A digital farmer registry managed by MoALF, (b) eVouchers sent by the national treasury directly to farmers, and (c) Payments to registered agro-dealers being made in a timely fashion while securing traceability of inputs to fight counterfeiting. The spending decision on the eVoucher is to be made by the farmer and is to be guided by the farmer’s uptake of registered agronomic advisors. Funding for the e-incentives is expected to come from a “basket fund”, pooling GoK and development partner finances, and with checks and balances for any release of funds. This use case aims to impact 1.4 million farming households and 2,300 agro-dealers by 2023. Its implementation is estimated to cost KES 1.2 Billion (Approximately USD 11 Million) by 2023. The digital platform implementing this use case is to be hosted by the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). The prospects of this use case can be enhanced by harmonizing efforts with concurrent input subsidization programs such as those at the 47 counties and by national programs such as KCEP-CRAL

Use case 2: Improving farming practices through customised e-extension

This use case is designed to improve practices among farmers to enhance their productivity through enhanced agronomic advisory services. This is more so considering a grower-to-extension-officer ratio as poor as 1:5,000 whereas the FAO recommended ratio is 1:600. Data analytics on weather, pest and disease trends, production yields and pricing are envisaged to help amplify improvements in farming practices. The use case envisages farmers accessing expanded resources on farming practices through extension service providers vetted by KALRO. These extension service providers are in turn expected to tap into a searchable portal of digital agriculture solutions to support their consultations with farmers. The extension service providers may include the traditional extension officers, village-based advisors, private sector field officers, model farmers and members of the 4-H foundation. Under this use case, the consent of growers is required for a digital agriculture service to incorporate a grower to its userbase through the government-run digital platform. Growers and other users of the digital platform can be expected to rate and review the constituent digital services. This can boost platform-wide efficiency according to the research on sources of value creation in such digital platforms. Under this use case, the platform reserves the right to remove digital agriculture services whose ratings remain low in what could contribute to loyalty-centredness as a source of value creation. The extension service providers are also to be paid an incentive to log details of their consultations with farmers in the digital platform. This is so as to help generate rich new insights for KALRO and MoALFI. Such details logged may include geolocation, type of digital service used and type of problem solved. This use case targets the registration of 2,300 extension service providers by 2023. It also targets 500,000 farmers per year accessing services to improve their farming practices. The estimated annual cost of this use case is KES 50 million (USD 460 million).

Use case 3: A food balance sheet monitoring national emergency reserves

This use case aims to maintain a reliably robust Food Balance Sheet (FBS) to help MoALFI and the Strategic Food Reserve Trust Fund (SFRTF). This is so as to reduce food shortages during emergencies. The use case is about digital inventory monitoring of national food reserves with accurate and real time data. It includes the use of satellite imagery to gather production data and to predict future stock needs. It also includes gathering intelligence from customs declarations and other trade records as proxy signals for fraudulent or anomalous market trends. Other features of this use case include gathering intelligence from consumption data and projecting future consumption patterns. With a robus FBS, the government agencies will be expected to make informed decisions that will also reduce the cost of procuring stocks under duress. This use case targets reducing volatility in stocks purchased for the SFRTF by 50%. It also targets boosted food resistance among close to 4 million high risk households during emergencies. The annual cost of this use case is estimated at KES 200 million (USD 1.84 million) by year three of the plan.

Use case 4: Early Warning System (EWS) for food price inflation 

This use case seeks to facilitate dynamic trade and price stability decisions using an Early Warning System (EWS) for food price inflation. The problems solved through this use case include the unreliably varying levels of accuracy and frequency of data collection on production which is manually done by enumerators and with limited validation. This use case integrates data with early warning elements to indicate likely changes in the prices of food commodities. Data on production, soil quality, pest and disease trends is expected to have early warning components. So is data on commodity trade from sources such as the Regional Agriculture Trade Intelligence Network (RATIN). The resulting early warning system is expected to be a single-source of information to forecast food price inflation. With such reliable information, MoALFI, the SFRTF and Cabinet can be expected to make timely, cost effective and targeted interventions with minimal distortion to market mechanisms. This use case targets to reduce volatility in food prices by 50% to match regional averages by 2023. The estimated annual cost of maintaining the system for this use case is KES 8 million by year 3 of the plan. I’d argue for additional consideration in this use case to incorporate market data from proven private sector driven price stabilization platforms such as Twiga Foods in the fruits and fresh vegetables space. This is especially with the demonstrated potential to use big data to power inclusive food markets. 

Use case 5: Optimal agricultural value chain selection 

This use case envisages selection and prioritization of focus value chains (crops, livestock, fishing etc) based on land use optimization models. The existing processes for selecting focus value chains by national and county level organs are faulted for having contradictory objectives and not being adequately evidence driven. Data to be fed into the optimization models may include aspects such as soil health and economic data including export markets. The land optimization models  may be tuned with parameters such as environment protection and yield optimization. Integrating the large datasets onto a single platform facilitating modeling under this use case anticipates support from enabling policies for data sharing, security and privacy potentially addressed under use case 7. This use case on value chain selection targets doubling the yields among small-scale farmers by 2023. It also targets boosting household food resilience for 1.3 million farming, pastoralist, and fishing households during drought in arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya. The use case estimates an annual cost of KES 120 million (USD 1.1 million) by year three of the plan’s implementation. It is notable that the implementation of this use case is envisaged to be county-based, allowing more local-level prioritizations that are more likely to resonate with growers on the ground. Grower-level solutions for value chain selection such as Waterwatch, CropIn are also acknowledged in  the plan and are considered complementary to the national and county level prioritizations. This begs the question of whether value chain selection should not be considered a grower-level decision made with the support of agronomic advisory under use case #2.

Growers often prioritise for themselves multiple value chains / photo credits: John Kieti

Use Case 6: M&E dashboard for data collection, verification and visualization

This use case is expected to streamline the data collection, verification and visualization of the outcomes targeted in use cases 1-5 (above). It builds on the observation that there are more than 10 visualization efforts capturing Kenya’s agricultural sector data from 200+ data sets. Some of these efforts are observed to be inactive or outdated, ostensibly due to their scope-related cost constraints. Examples of such visualization efforts include the upcoming KCSAP big data platform funded by the World Bank, the National Crop bulleting, the AfDB’s Africa Information highway, and the defunct Kenya National Bureau of Statistics visualization portal. For simplicity, the focus of the dashboard in this use case is limited to approximately 10 KPIs considered most relevant to the senior leadership at MoALFI. Upon success with the simplified, focused dashboard, the cascading of the same is envisaged within MoALFI and among the 47 counties. More granular project tracking tools are then expected to emerge, automating the build-up of insights for the macro-level dashboard. The estimated annual cost of this module is KES 20 million (USD 184,000)

Use case 7: Standards and protocols for a national data sharing platform

This use case seeks to establish standards and protocols for a national shared-access platform for agriculture data. The idea is to start with data handled by GoK and to progressively incorporate data handled by private sector players. Under this use case, platform users are expected to build on the high volume, highly interoperable data to create new insights for their interventions in agriculture. The problem to be solved by this use case is typified by the existence of multiple siloed farmer registries profiling more than two million farmers. These registries include those maintained by MOA-Info, Digifarm and OneAcre Fund. Under this use case, The Zambia Agriculture Management Information System – ZIAMIS, a FAO supported platform, is indicated as a candidate for adapting and scaling out in Kenya. The estimated annual cost of this use case is KES 20 million which is indicated as already funded by the World Bank under the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project (KCSAP).

Caveat: Government prioritized value chains and intervention areas

It is worth noting the intentional prioritization of digital interventions that the government is well placed to champion and implement among the seven use cases. As such, digital agriculture services deemed best implemented by the private sector and players other than Government agencies were not prioritized in the strategy. For instance, my favourite topics of overall market efficiency and demand driven production did not feature among the digital agriculture use cases. This is ostensibly because such issues are arguably best addressed by the private sector and are arguably related to market linkage concerns being addressed in the warehouse receipt system law enacted in 2019. Furthermore, the use cases have inherent prioritization of selected value chains, especially the grains sub sector including beans, maize, rice, wheat. In any case, I encourage readers keen on the full context and finer details about the planned implementation of these use cases to read the full report. Moreover, the full report has additional insights about implications for data ecosystem requirements in the use cases that should be of interest to the digital agriculture ecosystem actors, especially the providers of digital services.

Appreciation: For this post, I am grateful to Nixon Gecheo, AGRA’s Senior Program Officer for Digital Systems and Solutions for Agriculture. He brought this report to my attention, I have been otherwise clueless.


Loyalty-centredness in digital platforms – What really is that?

My co-authors and I have proposed a two-factor structure to explain the underlying structure of the sources of value creation in an aggregator platform for digital services in agriculture (AP4DSA). This is in a recently published research paper in the Digital Business Journal. We termed the two concepts represented in the two-factor structure as platform-wide efficiency and loyalty centredness. I wrote a brief summary of the issues in the research here. It’s has been some weeks since the publication was out. As I further explore the prospects of AP4DSAs, I ask myself – what really does loyalty centredness mean? In the paper’s discussion section, we attempted to explain the concept in line with where our evidence pointed us. I am obliged to look further into the term and to perhaps solicit more insights from all you fellow thinkers and readers.

Loyalty centredness according to the research is an attribute arising in the viewpoint of likely digital platform users, meshing together the ideas of loyalty and innovativeness. It evokes the notion of altruism and engagement with a digital platform according to the paper. This is as the users or stakeholders feel an increased sense of ownership and affiliation to the platform. The research paper further relates loyalty-centredness with an accountability arrangement among participating actors to generate win-win scenarios for both providers and consumers of services on a platform. According to the paper, the concept suggests the need for a platform to safeguard its ecosystem-wide integrity whereby, “genuineness and legitimacy of actors as well as the information, goods and services accessed through the platform can be guaranteed”. You may read further on these and other explanations of the concept in the research paper which is freely downloadable under a creative commons licence on the link below.

To further illuminate the concept beyond the inherent space limitations of a published scientific article, I have hived off the loyalty-centreness half from the two-factor structure in the figure below :-

Loyalty centredness as a source of value creation in an AP4DSA (adapted from Kieti et al. 2021)

In the diagram, the rectangular boxes illustrate the indicators measured to have strong influences on the loyalty centredness concept. For instance, creating and moderating a virtual community – L4 for users to interact on such a digital platform is influential in value creation as an indicator of loyalty centredness. Likewise, introducing new to the world products, services or information – N1 on the digital platform can strongly influence loyalty centredness as a source of value creation. As such, an increase in any of the 10 indicators results in an increase in loyalty centredness as a collective notion and a source of value creation in the platform.

Essentially, we used the term Loyalty centredness to represent a collective of the 10 indicators in the rectangular boxes. The notion captured in these 10 indicators is certainly not about user-human centred design as might be tempting to broaden out to. It is also more distinct than the wider concept of user centricity. The indicators in yellow(ish) boxes were initially from the concept of loyalty while the items in pink(ish) boxes were from the concept of innovativeness. In the research, the two indicators with the highest influence on loyalty centredness were from the loyalty concept. These most influential indicators were, (a) guarantees for reliability and quality – L6 and (b) upholding trust – L2 which includes ensuring data protection, safety and security guidelines are adhered to. For more on these influences and their strengths, see their factor loadings in Figure 4 of the published paper. These stronger influences and the higher number of indicators from loyalty than innovativeness informed our conceptualization of the collective notion as loyalty centredness.

In the published paper, we argued that, “a new innovation may be onboarded and showcased on a platform yet not be ready to exhibit the kind of reliability and quality guarantees expected by the loyal platform users“. Among the Kenyan participants, it would be that aspects of innovativeness foster the sense of loyalty and pride in affiliating with the platform. Arguably, the indicators from innovativeness might have proved to be more impactful on the resulting collective concept if the research was conducted in a country where the history of innovations in digital agriculture was not as long as Kenya’s. Likely users in those countries may as well have rated the innovativeness indicators more highly, being more easily impressed by such nascent efforts. As such, it may be that innovativeness aspects can be more impactful than the loyalty aspects in those countries.

I am thinking that loyalty-centredness might have acquired a slightly different name if the research was conducted in a country where the excitement and buzz about digital innovations for agriculture are still fresh. This thinking may be worth validation with further investigation among likely AP4DSA users in other sub-Saharan African countries. It may also be argued that in due course, such sub-Saharan African countries would still evolve their digital agriculture ecosystems to the slightly more advanced situation in Kenya. Therefore they would still have to face the concept of loyalty-centredness as a source of value creation in an AP4DSA as their ecosystems evolve.

I am curious to hear what others interested in the value creation mechanisms of digital platforms think about this notion of loyalty centredness.

A World class University is all Konza Technocity Needs: The rest will follow

What is the present day silicon valley might not have become what it is without the existence of Stanford University. In 1876 when former California Governor Leland Stanford bought their first 650 acres of land for a country home in San Francisco, he certainly didn’t have silicon valley in mind. Even as the Stanford couple were deciding to setup an institution in memory of their gone-too-soon son in 1884, the option of setting up a private university appeared not to be a first choice.  As the Stanfords made exploratory visits to the then established MIT, Harvad and John Hopkins universities, they probably didn\’t imagine the scale of impact that would arise from setting up “yet another university” – in memory of Leland Junior. Here is an account of Stanford University\’s history and the rise of silicon valley.

Google Map Screen Damp of Silicon Valley in 2015
A Google Maps Screen Dump of Silicon Valley
That happenings in Silicon valley over the years have shaped the global economy is not in doubt. That many cities and regions in the world are trying hard to replicate the silicon valley effect is also a major discourse often contentious. Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of ethernet and founder of 3COM once said, “Silicon Valley is the only place on earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.” Many people, industry pundits and scholars alike argue that pursuit of such isomorphism is not the way for nations to build globally competitive innovation ecosystems. This school of thought is agreeable partly as far as the ingredients that nurtured Silicon valley over a century could by now be assembled over a shorter period elsewhere. Even so, looking up to Silicon valley will remain unavoidable for as long as we still have a growing list of world changing enterprises springing out of the Bay Area across the decades.
Back home in Africa and Kenya, Konza Technocity is an idea that may have become tired in the minds of industry pundits. I am convinced that establishing a university within the designated space or within 10km radius of the planned city is all that is required for the city to take off. In fact so far I have seen many industry commentators change from antagonism to surprising support of Konza Technocity when the idea of prioritizing a university kicks in to the debate. By establishing a university at Konza Technocity, I don\’t mean just any university: I mean a university designed and led with obsession for innovation and entrepreneurship. I also mean a university designed with sensitivity to local education dynamics, while at the same time uncompromisingly achieving world class standards of management and research excellence from the onset.
Construction of road infrastructure at Konza Technocity in April 2015

Many opponents of Konza Technocity fault its current focus on real estate and infrastructure development as efforts away from the so called \”industry priority\” for human capacity development. Few weeks back in my article on why Konza Technocity will not be a white elephant, I argued that execution towards long term and mid-term objectives must not be mutually exclusive. In fact the case of fast tracking establishment of a world class university is a near perfect match of seeking medium term objectives concurrently with the long term ones. It may not take over a year for fast tracked infrastructural components of a university to come up in Konza. It could take about three years to start graduating world class talent at the university if its structured as a final two year phase of a four year degree program whose first phase is undertaken in existing universities.

Google Maps Screen Dump of The Egerton University Town

Perhaps the story of Stanford and the Bay Area is too abstract for someone considering the reality of government projects and global industry dynamics affecting Kenya. The storyline can be approached from first principles. For instance we have seen thriving new University towns in Kenya. From Egerton, to Maseno, to Daystar and other universities, we see independently thriving ecosystems. These ecosystems include players in transport, agricultural supply chain, hostels and real estate providers, entertainment and others meeting the needs of students, faculty and support staff. This is because human capital development does not thrive in a vacuum. The universities even need primary and secondary schools for children of faculty and support staff, as well as health care services. Emergent aspects of such an ecosystem would be the interest of large multinationals such as Google, Microsoft and IBM setting up affiliations with the university and ostensibly building their on-the-ground mechanisms for harnessing the university\’s talent. Interest in talent and research outputs from the university will also interest local enterprises keen about global scale and competitiveness. More important though is the prospect of university grown startups incubated or accelerated by the university\’s obsession with innovation and entrepreneurship.

Although Stanford University kick started Silicon Valley, it is is not the only significant academic institution shaping the history of technological innovation. Many other top universities have continued to fuel the valley\’s momentum including other notable names in the Bay Area such as University of California Berkelay. There would be space for other universities in Kenya and the world over to contribute to Konza Technocity\’s talent pool. Indeed there\’s space for multiple universities to be physically within the Konza area. The case for Konza attracting global talent in tandem with churning out its own local talent is a matter for another article so I hold my thoughts.
One useful improvement from the first Konza masterplan in the second one delivered by the Masterplan Delivery Partners is bringing forward establishment of a university campus from the second of four year phases to the first phase. Granted the Konza Technocity Authority (KOTDA) already has the elaborate master plan, I think it is not too late to tweak parts of the masterplan so as to further further fast track establishment of its first university. I am of the opinion that merely having a university in the first phase of the masterplan is not enough. In fact the university establishment may need to be hived off and expedited ahead of any bureaucracy or slow process for implementing the masterplan.
I see several big unanswered questions about actualizing this route for KOTDA and other stakeholders of Konza Technocity.
  1. Who would own that urgently needed first university in Konza and how will KOTDA\’s procurement dynamics play out?
  2. How do we ensure that the university is run with the desired obsessive focus on innovation and entrepreneurship?
  3. How do we ensure that the university is as a world class institution from the onset – especially considering that University of Nairobi, Kenya\’s best ranked university at number 855 globally in 2014 may not be considered world class as yet.
There are potential answers to these questions. For instance there could be an efficiently administered tender for the world\’s Ivy league schools to establish a campus at Konza, potentially partnering with local public universities who understand the local terrain. An ivy league university with innovation and entrepreneurship focus such as Stanford could also partner with government institutions such as counties surrounding Konza to co-own and run such a university. I would play down the prospect of a purely private sector driven initiative such as a green field new university regardless of their level of capitalisation. This is because procurement dynamics of KOTDA are such that an intra-governmental procurement conversations could advance faster than arms length transactions.

End of an epoch: Reflections on four years at the m:lab

The last days of February are my final moments at the helm of m:lab East Africa – the m:lab. Its now 4 years since I took up a challenge from the m:lab consortium comprising iHub, eMobilis, University of Nairobi and the World Wide Web foundation to setup and run programs at the m:lab. Back in February 2011, the consortium had just won a much coveted opportunity to host the East Africa instance of infoDev’s mLab concept. Other World Bank supported mLabs would be in Southern Africa (South Africa), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Armenia), East Asia (Vietnam). The South Asia mLab in Pakistan would not quite take off.

the m:lab as a construction project early 2011
Looking back four years, its been a great experience, sometimes a roller coaster ride – a great thrill, but very importantly; a learning experience for me. With time I was surrounded by a great team; incredibly dedicated with fabulous execution abilities. Representatives of the consortium organizations served as an awesome oversight board that became our biggest fans. With such a team and board level fan base, and a clear opportunity to impact the East African start-up ecosystem, I have my considered successes and failures. My picks for top 7 apparent successes would be:
  1. Hype and Substance: Helping to sustain interest and to create hype about applications, entrepreneurship and start-ups in mobile technology was fulfilling. Apparently this may have been at the expense of other IT sub sectors – an outcome that we did not quite anticipate. The ICT Authority and iHub were co-protagonists in this. The substance would always come behind the hype, and that may continue to be the case – see the authoritative video opinions of hype and substance in the East African Context as discussed during PIVOT East 2014.
  2. Brand Building: Building and curating the m:lab East Africa and PIVOT East names into strong formidable brands as regards mobile innovations and start-ups was quite an achievement. Apparently these two brands are strong offline among software developers, corporates in the mobile space and international development agencies. The brands are quite strong in the social media space but their following on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn would be a more objective metric to look at for those with interest. For PIVOT East, a home grown brand to compare favourably against the entry of fairly established brands such as DEMO, Seed Stars, Sankalp, Startup Sauna and others, our team must have done very well.
  3. Interventions for startups: Discovering, and supporting some top next generation high growth start-ups has been fulfilling. To name a few, without any order of remembrance or preference, we have supported Kopokopo (9 months), Totohealth (10 months – ongoing), Eneza Education (24 months), Mfarm (24 months), Uhasibu (24 months), Ma3route (18 months ongoing), MPayer (24 months), MTL / Mshop (24 months – spun off Sendy) and MedAfrica (9 months).
  4. iSarura – Rwandan Startup at PIVOT East
    Image Credits: mlab East Africa

    PIVOT East program: I have seen many alumnus of our four year old PIVOT East program go on to succeed or learn lessons to build great new startups. Somehow I had a soft spot for Tanzanian start-ups such as Go Finance, TiME Tickets and Ubongo Kids and they have not let us down. Overall the PIVOT East program has grown beyond being a potentially \”hit and run\” conference to a substantive start-up acceleration program and support network. Seeing finalist start-ups from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and most recently Online Hisab from Ethiopia has been quite satisfying. Seeing some start-ups prudently utilise the little PIVOT East linked funding coming from our modest surpluses was always gratifying.

  5. Worthwhile Experiments: With the immense latitude allowed by the board, we experimented with virtual incubation, a secondary incubation site at the GreenHouse (supported by Nokia) and the mobile impact ventures program focusing on Agriculture, Education and Health startups supported by both Tony Elumelu and Rockefeller Foundations.

    Wireless Wednesday Session in Progres
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    Through these experiments, we are proud to have supported startups such as Ma3Racer, Fomobi, Lipisha, Elimu, Totohealth, Tuma Karo, Smart Farmer, Sokonect, and tens of others I forget. The experiments in startup incubation got us lots of lessons to reflect on and apply in future programs as the significance of the in-residence type of start-up interventions diminishes. Another experiment that would become quite a success and a regular fixture for us would be the \”Wireless Wednesday\” program. The regional ICT4ag competition we organised for CTA was quite fulfilling seeing that startups involved such as Ensibuuko and FarmDrive are going strong.

  6. Ecosystem Partnerships: Unknown to many observers, running the m:lab and any other start-up friendly initiative is a very entrepreneurial role. Keeping the m:lab doors open during and after the modest but critical grant from infoDev (the World Bank) was always a challenge. This meant dreaming up and pursuing intricate value conversations with industry players. Over the four years we have had a wide range of fruitful partnerships and collaborations with infoDev (World Bank), Chase Bank, Samsung, Nokia, Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, Facebook, Motorola Solutions (Now Zebra Technologies), Motorola Solutions Foundation, Safaricom, Seacom, USAID, Mercy Corps, CTA, The Global Impact Investing Network, Omidydar Network, CGAP, Crowd Valley, Savannah Fund, Viktoria Solutions and ACCION. There\’s other partners I will beg forgiveness for forgetting to mention. Having numerous high value individual volunteers may easily be the single biggest reason we achieved our apparent successes. These included business coaches and mentors from across East Africa and across the globe. Experiencing such generosity with people\’s valuable time always reminded me that the world has good people.
  7. Training 400+ Mobile App. Developers: From the infoDev sponsored 4-6 month programs to 6-12 week programs in partnership with Microsoft, Intel and others, we have had fairly successful rounds of honing skills of mobile

    Trainees at 4th wave of infoDev sponsored training
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    applications developers. As opposed to our other programs, these trainings admitted individuals and not start-up teams. The trainings have mostly covered technical skills coupled with entrepreneurship, a bit of user experience design skills. The success of this program may be symbolized by the number of start-ups that were formed as an inspiration if the program such as mTracker and mVerified. Many got scholarships to Strathmore University\’s Msc program and many improved their employment chances. Surprisingly many created almost passive revenues ranging from $200 – $2,000 per month from apps used internationally from app stores – especially the Nokia store. More evidently however, the program\’s success is symbolized by MobiDev Solutions, a consulting outfit that sprung out of the fourth wave of the infoDev sponsored training late 2012. About ten of them dared me to support them as they created a mobile software consulting outfit. That would be a difficult gamble on my part as they would not meet my purist definition of a start-up. I can now bet on them being one of the biggest software consulting outfits in the region – in the next couple of years.

The Fail Fair!! One of my greatest lessons at the m:lab was to celebrate failure and to learn from it. My top 5 most memorable failures have been:
  1. Third party investments: Although PIVOT is an investor pitching program, among the 100 start-ups we have supported, conversion from investor linkages to actual investments has remained low (with a couple of surprises). Although startups supported by the m:lab had many potential linkages to source of venture capital, not many of them with founders from within the region closed funding deals. I spare my hypothesis about the apparently low deal closure rate for another long blog article. For now it may be worthwhile for interested readers to watch to related views of Mbwana (Savannah Fund), Johnni(Growth Hub), and Andreata (TLCom Capital) in the PIVOT East video

  2. The seed fund that would become: Soon after concluding the first edition of PIVOT East in 2011 – then named PIVOT 25, I was convinced that a long term and more sustainable revenue model for m:lab would include success sharing with supported startups. This to me would ultimately be strengthened by coupling our intervention with seed capital for startups through our own investment vehicle. That continues to be our much envisaged but not exactly executed sustainability strategy. To be fair, we have ended up making some micro-investments thus far. However, many might argue that an embedded fund has never been necessary for m:lab. Perhaps in future I shall get a chance to blog more about the many lessons learned while trying unsuccessfully to set up this fund.
  3. Financial Sustainability: I like to laugh away at how in our first set of strategic objectives, we envisaged for m:lab to be financially sustainable within the first one year. In hindsight, I would consider the thought that I treated financial sustainability for the m:lab as a sprint rather than a marathon. There are some value propositions, materializing or otherwise that I would have been better off monetizing gradually and incrementally. Inasmuch as we have made progress and de-risked much of our business model, the m:lab remains a startup in that we may not have arrived at a repeatable and scalable business model.
  4. Applications testing and the famous sandbox: Whenever developers complain to Safaricom and others about the absence of a sandbox for testing USSD and SMS apps, I always looked down thinking how much we at the m:lab were best placed to make the sandbox a reality. I could try and explain this failure away but the fact is mobile developers in the region (at least Kenya) do not have an affordable, reliable way of testing low tech mobile applications for which the market is very ready.

    The m:lab\’s Applications Testing Facility
    Image Credits: m:lab East Africa

    Our famous testing room is a great and useful resource although I would have loved to see more developers scheduling time to test phones. The m:lab team continues to learn about these things.

  5. Rusty Blogging – Considering I am the long-post type of blogger, the hustle and bustle of running m:lab took its toll on my ability to churn out as many blog posts and reflections on the startup ecosystem as I wished to. Working with numerous startups and industry players has a way of highlighting key patterns and trends about teams, product development, and the market structure. The article I wrote early 2014 on startup team composition is perhaps the best I did to share my synthesis of these patterns and trends. I regret that I didn\’t write more to capture the wealth of such insights through blog articles. Apparently, the article on estimating startup market size through Facebook audience insights didn\’t generate as much interest as I thought so it may be yet another challenge to bring the right startup topics to the fore.
  6. Weak government linkages – Perhaps having been part of the Kenya government system has a way of keeping one away from government relationships. I did some time as part of a government system before getting the the m:lab. For the most part while at the m:lab, I failed to adequately pursue collaboration opportunities with Kenya government institutions such as the ICT Authority, NACOSTI, CAK and the ministry of industrialization and enterprise development. In general I was not a government connections guy and that may have cost the m:lab much.
  7. There\’s many successes and failures on my part that I don’t remember. I shall let readers here guess and comment on these that I forget or conveniently fail to share.

So what\’s next?
The m:lab has great prospects! The board and team I leave behind are great! Building on our successes and failures will open a new chapter for the m:lab and its affiliates for its prosperity in the next couple of years.

As for me, I enrolled for doctoral studies at the University of Nairobi back in 2013. Currently my research area traverses information systems, entrepreneurship and agriculture in somewhat unrealistic ways. Its been quite an evolution and a while now since enrollment and its told anecdotally that over 60% of people who start such studies the world over don\’t complete to graduate. 2015 is the year I have set aside to improve my chances of falling on the 40% side. I shall remain a strong exponent for tech startups in the region. Perhaps I shall also drink more water than wine in an economic space where entrepreneurial ventures are our best chance for emancipating our masses from poverty and injustice.

My reflections would be incomplete if I did not mention that working with Erik Hersman, Ken Mwenda and more recently, Josiah Mugambi who represented co-leads of the m:lab consortium was the most supportive and reassuring aspect of running the m:lab. Toni Eliasz and Dr. Tim Kelly from infoDev (World Bank) were another great source of encouragement.

mAgric Innovations – Do they matter anyway?

Over the last decade, contribution of Kenya’s agriculture sector to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been below 30% but above 25%. Across East African countries, contribution of Agriculture has been similar to that of Kenya or declining altogether. The chart below shows the trend since 2001 in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda.

Contribution of Agriculture to national GDP remains significant but sub-optimal

Weight of the matters

Perhaps there’s no need to worry about this trend if it can be seen as a deliberate outcome of economic diversification strategies among individual countries. However agriculture continues to be the mainstay of most East African economies. Agriculture accounts for 61% of total employment in Kenya for instance. Contribution to national employment statistics by agriculture seems even higher among other East African countries as indicated in the chart below.

Agriculture contributes to the majority of employment opportunities

With such significance of Agriculture in employment creation, a question of proportions begs. That is the question of why the many jobs attributable to agriculture do not result in a commensurate contribution to national GDP growth by the sector in East Africa.

Necessary Mind Shift?

Everyone is capable of a radical mind shift at some point in their short lives. Health IT, eHealth and mHealth have been my favorite ICT4D areas for over half a decade. In 2013, I found myself shifting interests away from health towards agriculture. For avoidance of doubt, health is a great field to achieve results at a personal level, institutional level or otherwise. I wrote much about eHealth or related topic here in the “yester-years“.

In East Africa, the health sector has employed many brilliant minds especially in NGOs and government – from health care workers to health systems practitioners. Opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship and even job careers in health continue to knock at doors of the region’s talented workforce. However this article in the East African based on a report titled  “Investments to End Poverty” by Development Initiative’s (DI) does much to present an alternative view which is validating my shifting focus.

According to DI’s report, “East Africa received nearly $9 billion of aid in 2011, with the biggest chunk channeled to the health sector“.  This according to the report is disproportionate to the real needs expressed by people in developing countries. The report suggests, “On the other hand, there are few political champions for those issues that top the list of citizens’ priorities in sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America, such as jobs/income, security or infrastructure.” Furthermore, a World Bank Development Report in 2008 indicated that among developing countries, 1 percent GDP growth originating in agriculture potentially reduces poverty by at least 2.5 times as much as the same GDP growth originating in the rest of the economy. 

An all season water mass in a Kenyan rural under-utilized for Agriculture

Job creation and income generation for poverty eradication are the reasons I am betting big on mobiles for agriculture (mAgric) in 2014. It could be either mAgri or mAgric am referring to, or both. To me they both refer to the application of mobile technologies to help increase efficiency and productivity in agricultural value chains.There is the mAgri program of the GSM Association (GSMA) that makes generic use of the term mAgri difficult. To avoid confusing the GSMA program and the emerging discipline around mobiles for agriculture, I shall stick to mAgric as my reference abbreviation. 

Needless to say, mobile phones have become ubiquitous computers and communication devices in most developing countries. Mobile technology therefore appears top on the list before any other technology for fostering development in East Africa. This is already demonstrated in the area of financial inclusion. I have had my own observations, rants and raves on this in previous articles here. Ostensibly then, not much effort should be spent explaining the narrowing act of embracing mobile technology in development and not all information and communication technology in general. 

Agriculture is complex; Why mAgric anyway?

It should not be easy to convince everyone that advancements in mAgric innovation will single handedly solve the matter of sub-optimal productivity in East Africa’s agricultural sector. I shall argue though, that innovations and entrepreneurship in mAgric can play a big role in revitalizing and optimizing activities in agricultural value chains.

In his book “The New Harvest – Agricultural Innovation in Africa”, Calestous Juma, a renown professor of innovation and sustainable development argues that “Agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity”. It is access to information and transactional efficiencies for value chain actors possible through mobile applications that I would bet on in mAgric. Such applications are bound to enhance the knowledge-based entrepreneurial activities that Prof. Juma refers to. 

growing array of mAgric innovations by local entrepreneurs

 Arguably, for developing nations serious about uplifting agricultural productivity, the role of mAgric in revitalizing agricultural practice is big. This is validated by the notion that for national economies to grow sustainably, deliberate premium has to be placed on a learning culture and improved problem solving skills in the productive population. These can be fostered through promotion and use of appropriate mobile applications in the case of agriculture.

Is mAgric stalling?

Many mAgric applications including Mfarm, iCow, eSoko, and M-shamba have been introduced to East Africa\’s agriculture actors over the last three years. Although it would seem obvious that uptake of such innovations will be rapid in East Africa, that has not been the case. m:lab East Africa has since 2012 organized a series of focus group discussions dubbed \”Wireless Wednesday\” that have highlighted issues bedeviling mAgric and the opportunities in the region. A recap of one such meet-up held in October 2013 highlights many issues including awareness and ease of use. Observations made in April 2012, are similar to those made in the more recent meet-ups and this beg the question of whether progress is being made. 

A video clip taken of Qureish Noordin (pardon the quality) from AGRA elaborating concerns from enablers\’ perspective below may help to demonstrate the complexity of issues affecting uptake of mAgric innovations in East Africa.

More efforts continue to be made to attract more innovations in the ICT for agriculture (ICT4ag)space. This is exemplified in CTA\’s ICT4ag competition in 2013 among other similarly themed contests targeting innovators in developing nations. The emerging concern among actors and enablers in the mAgric space is therefore whether any of the new or existing innovations can amass significant uptake for meaningful impact in the agricultural sector to be realized while achieving sustainability. 

Adjusted blogging interest ..

2013 had its own highlights and disappointments. One major highlight for me was a win against procrastination, whereby I got to register for long overdue doctoral studies. It is the apparent slow uptake, and sustainability challenges of mAgric applications that I shall be investigating in my PhD thesis throughout 2013 and beyond. That may explain the increased analysis and \”opinionation\” about mAgric applications, and the promise for agricultural prosperity throughout East Africa in this blog as 2013 comes along.

For now I shall leave you with another video clip (pardon the quality) taken of Safaricom\’s Peter Gichangi sharing his thoughts with developers at a Wireless Wednesday meet-up addressing the challenges for uptake of mAgric applications.

Evolving thoughts on innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth

Entrepreneurs create new businesses, and new businesses in turn create jobs. New businesses intensify competition for existing larger businesses. Increased competition forces small and large entreprises alike to innovate and be more efficient in creating value for customers. Efficient value creation results in a more productive economy hence economic growth. 

Arguably, many large entreprises in East Africa do not face much competition, enough to give research and development the priority place required for innovation to grow. Furthermore, many of the larger entreprises within East Africa are multinationals whose research and development initiatives are controlled by their parent entities abroad. Therefore innovation for such multinationals is more likely to target global markets and not local markets in developing countries where revenue streams are comparatively insignificant. The other significant proportion of large entreprises in East Africa is comprised of parastatals and government entities which are by their very design incapable of being innovative. Generally, government related corporations are so stuck in public sector dynamics that innovation and value optimization for customers is rarely a real intention among their top executives.

The role of value optimization and innovation in East Africa\’s economies is therefore by default delegated to smaller enterprises, start-up firms and entrepreneurs driven by the opportunities or necessities created in the market place. In a 2006 paper titled \”Is entrepreneurship good for economic growth?\” Zoltan Acs used Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring (GEM) data from over 20 countries to argue that not all such entrepreneurial activity contributes to economic growth. The case is more apparent in developing countries where individuals are forced into entrepreneurship by necessity (lack of jobs) rather than primarily to pursue perceived market opportunities.

Very often, independent startup ventures in developing economies are likely to fail at some point for the following reasons :-
  • Derailment by alternative opportunities – Founders can get derailed easily by employment opportunities emerging with larger companies, NGOs and government institutions promising to afford them financial comfort – albeit for the medium term. Besides formal employment opportunities for founders, start-up firms often find themselves derailed by opportunities to service contracts that are not related to their core mission. This way their \’flagship products\’ suffer stunted growth  as the firm evolves into a \”general consulting\” outfit.
  • Start-up firms easily get locked into a sub-optimal operating state where they lack finances to increase awareness of their new otherwise viable products. They lack marketing funds to acquire critical numbers of customers to break-even in their operatons. Such startups end up not growing or closing down as they find it very difficult to penetrate the market. 
  • Individuals forced into entrepreneurship by necessity are likely to lack technical or managerial skills to grow their business beyond certain levels unless they raise funds to employ the people with the right skill sets. Startups are often unable to acquire the right human resources for growing their businesses beyond the vulnerable start up phase. As a startup begins to move beyond their minimum viable product, they rapidly require to shift focus on marketing, working capital management and project management among other aspects of business management without which sustainability is not assured.
The common thread the above reasons for startup failure is \”access to capital\”. A strong case exists therefore for entrepreneurs in East Africa to prioritize their fund raising efforts for sustainable growth. Given that debt financing for young startups is rarely an option in East Africa, entrepreneurs need to focus on other forms of financing such as grants and equity investment. That is not to forget the option of participating in entrepreneurship competition with significant prize monies such as Pivot East.

That grant financing would be preferable to entrepreneurs is a no brainer. However, although grants are accessible if one is lucky, equity based investments present better opportunities for serious startups raising funds for growth. Equity based fund raising ensures that founders think through their business seriously as investors will only touch them if they can validate their business models for significant returns on investment. Equity based investment also ensures that the founders have a better sense of business accountability by virtue of other people having a stake in the business. Equity based financing often comes with opportunities for business mentorship and networking linkages from the financing parties. The temptation among entrepreneurs often is to resist dilution of their equity ownership by introduction of investors. That mentality begs the question \”would you rather own 100% of a $10k company destined for stagnation or  would you rather own 70% of a $10k company on a solid growth path to $10m?\”

In conclusion, there is need for the entrepreneurs to take equity investment options more seriously for growth and sustainability of their businesses. That way the economies in East Africa can benefit from innovations and value optimizations expected from entrepreneurs and smaller businesses while the bigger corporates evolve to create value to customers more efficiently at a much slower pace.

Nairobi\’s Tech Scene – Personal Highlights for Quarter 1 of 2011

My last article in this blog was posted in December 2010. That makes almost 5 months since I made a serious post.  It was by no means intentionally staying away from writing for this long. It was rather more of  \’the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak\’. To kick start blogging again I shall lazily try to recap the noteworthy developments I have observed in my small technology world during the first three months of 2011.

Mobile Monday with Pesapal – January 17
That was an inspiring moment especially listening to Agosta Liko of PesaPal. It was impressive to see a local technology startup begin to penetrate the corporate market place – with schools and banks. I still have not heard much from them regarding one of my wish list items though. They should think more through the possibilities for Kenyans paying monthly rent using PesaPal – their great payment information service. Liko\’s powerpoint presentation can be downloaded here.

OpenMRS meetup  – January 24
Despite the rainy morning, we had a great meetup with OpenMRS friends at the iHub that was ably organized by my friend @JWesonga. On the same day there was an opportunity to engage students at the university of Nairobi\’s School of Computing and Informatics which I had helped organise. It was lovely then to listen in to @ and @ as they sensitized the local computer science students who were mostly in second year on software development for good. 

Fireside Chat with Ken Oyolla – January 27th
I had this great opportunity to listen to Ken Oyola – Nokia\’s General Manager for East and Southern Africa during the iHub\’s monthly Fire Side chat. I had first met Oyolla when I was a form one in Mangu high school – he had \’cleared\’ from the great institution and was coming back as a mentor a year after. During the FireSide chat, it struck me how people do not change even after a decade or more of exposure to the world out there. Ken was still the same candidly inspiring strong personality. Am sure he will achieve another \’first one\’, beyond being the first African to hold such a high ranking position in Nokia.

Mid-Feb Transitional Period
Mid February was a transitional period for me as I left my fairly comfortable, no-real-pressure state corporation Job. It was time to take up a more challenging role with m:lab EAST AFRICA. The new role is really exciting and much worth the career shift as it fits magically into my ICT4D leadership aspirations. More so, it seems like the best opportunity to amplify my modest contribution to East Africa\’s knowledge economy.

Mobile Monday with Microsoft Guys – 21st February
In all honesty I do not have a history of being a fan of Microsoft\’s products. Having to say something about m:lab at the event, attending this Mobile Monday was mostly a duty call. I was impressed to see how Microsoft has been working hard to contribute towards positive social transformation across the world. They had a video of previous Imagine Cup winners from somewhere in Asia which was impressive. It was also my first event to hear about Craft Silicon\’s ELMA platform for rapid mobile application development of mobile banking solutions. The thought of having a mobile applications generator, for development without much coding sounded interesting – only I thought it will remove control and gratification from the local application developer.

It is a shame I missed February\’s Fire Side Chat with Larry Wall  (on 24th February). Larry Wall is the creator of the Pearl Programming Language for readers who would care to know.

iHub one year anniversary – 11th March
In the dying hours of the year 2010, I was reflecting and thinking to myself that inception of the iHub had been the greatest thing that had happened to Kenya\’s tech scene that year. I really wanted to blog my thoughts then but I realized I needed to avoid looking to oversell my hurriedly done late application for green membership. The thought passed by and in March I was happy to participate in iHub\’s first anniversary. Meeting the bigger iHub community was awesome although I had a rude culture shock of members murmuring away as ICT board\’s Paul Kukubo gave his speech. With me coming from a government background – it felt awkward. A parastatal CEO like Paul was meant to be revered and accorded maximum attention in public service circles – the murmurs felt radically different. Culture shock and assimilation aside, I look forward to a ground breaking year 2011 for the iHub community in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Mobile Monday with Moses Kemibaro of Dealfish – 21st March
This event was a must attend for me – not because of any duty call but because @MosesKemibaro is one of the most respectable bloggers in Nairobi\’s tech scene for me. I needed to find out what he had been up to after rumor had it that he was no longer actively involved with his DotSavvy company.  Moses is Regional Manager for Dealfish. His presentation helped to demistify Dealfish – currently a constant fixture in Nairobis outdoor bill boards and online google ad-words for the Kenya context. With tweets like this :- \”RT @ Dealfish are not sure how to monetize their service yet – they are not worried about this either \”, the message was loud and clear that Moses\’ new venture had deep pockets behind it. Moses fell short of being forthright on the issue of when Dealfish would start making money. His update later that Dealfish would turn on its money making machine at its own chosen time was quite telling on how serious the South African firm was about the Kenyan online market place.

During this Mobile monday it was also enlightening to know of m-order, an upcoming service from Hilda Moraa and her troop who were students at the Strathmore university. Nairobi\’s chapter of Mobile Monday has some good pictures of the event in their website here

Fireside Chat with John Waibochi of Virtual City 24th March
The iHub did it again with its March fireside chat. Then it was John Waibochi, the CEO of Virtual City on the raised floor. Virtual City is the Kenyan company that won 2010\’s Nokia innovation challenge with $1 million prize money. Mr. Waibochi\’s story was intriguing and inspiring as well. With the entrepreneurial tips of \’riding the wave\’  and exiting just before the wave\’s peak, Waibochi did well to motivate budding tech-entrepreneurs. His talk was much of a consolation also for me – to know that my corporate, MBAish background had a place in tech-entrepreneurship. It got me dusting down my  ERP, ISO 9000 and balanced scored card salesmanship cap with some rather unrealistic ambitions for my new career situation. Waibochi also offered tips on important global trends such as android and impact investment which he thought were more important than looking up to real life mentors.

Anticipation for Second Quarter of 2011
There were many developments and events I missed on in the first quarter of 2011. Indeed Nairobi has a thriving tech scene that no one person can keep track of all happenings. Watching the iHub\’s event calendar helps a bit though. In the months of April, May and June 2011, there are some important events I look forward to. One of them is iHub\’s Fireside chat for April which will have Mr. Joe Mucheru of Google Africa on the raised floor on 21st April. I also have much anticipation for this year\’s Pivot25 event that will see 25 mobile applications being showcased at Nairobi\’s Ole Sereni Hotel in June 2011. 

M-PESA is not a Kenyan Innovation

Many Kenyans still believe that \’their\’ Safaricom owns the patents to the M-PESA innovation. Some Kenyans even claim that Safaricom hijacked their idea and developed it into M-PESA – a court case was once reported on this. The reality being that the system  was \’developed\’ by Sagentia on behalf of Vodafone, it goes without saying that the corresponding intellectual property (IP) does not belong to Safaricom. That is also not to forget that Kenya has enough software development capacity to build such a system on a robust platform.

Safaricom is paying patent fees to Vodafone just like any other network operator who will wish to use the money transfer platform. It might help for Michael Joseph to clarify if any benefits accrue to himself or others in Safaricom specifically for accepting to be the test platform for \”Vodafone\’s innovation\”. Such a clarification should of course address the opportunity cost of a more direct contribution to Kenya\’s knowledge economy through the apparently foregone IP ownership.

I would like to suggest that if for any other reason M-PESA does not succeed in other markets outside Kenya, it will be because the M-PESA is merely a Kenyan innovation, whose success is a direct derivative of  Kenya\’s patriotism. As such the innovation\’s success may not be replicated where the corresponding patriotic emotion is inexistent.
Consider the patriotism displayed in the oversubscription of the Safaricom IPO of 2008. Consider the fanatical self imposed network (Safaricom) lock-in of over 14 million Kenyans. Then you might start understanding the success of M-PESA in Kenya. Many Kenyans found M-PESA compelling merely because it was supposed to be a \’Kenyan Invention\’. Indeed the M-PESA success story may not be complete without mentioning the sense of belonging and patriotism of Kenyans as an aftermath of 2007/8 election crisis.
Had the 5+ Millions of M-PESA users initially learnt some of the facts in Olga Morawczynski\’s
article – What you don\’t know about M-PESA, the service might as well have been struggling as is the case with the Vodacom\’s attempt in Tanzania. Consider the question – why are ZAP and YuCash – alternatives to MPESA not yet success stories? In my opinion, the technological platform could have been developed by anyone else – including our own software developers. The business processes addressing the socio-economic context could only have come from the Kenyan populace – regardless of who eventually incorporated them into the software.    
I am sure at some point in history, the social scientists will have something to say about the role of Kenya\’s social-political crisis of 2007 and 2008 in the M-PESA success story.