We talked to Nwachinemere Emeka of Kitovu about market access for farmers, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Nwachinemere Emeka: That’s a new lexicon right there, “Covid-19 times”; soon, we might date things as pre and post Covid. Lol. But honestly, COVID-19 has made 2020 a very uniquely challenging year, but regardless, my family and I are doing fine.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kitovu.
Nwachinemere Emeka: I studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 2013, I was posted to Oyo State, Nigeria, for the mandatory national youth service. While there, I learnt about an Agro-allied scheme operated in partnership between the state government and the National youth service scheme (NYSC) that promised to give any young person who wanted to farm some land to do just that. As a lover of new experiences, I decided to give it a try. It was one decision that was to change the entire trajectory of my life. I farmed on a 5-hectare farm where I cultivated maize, with little information and resources. It was hard grunt work, with me having to do some of the tasks myself because I didn’t have enough money to pay farm attendants. Then came the harvest, a moment of truth. I was very heartbroken because my yields were very poor as compared to global yield averages. But that was nothing compared to been offered peanuts by buyers because I had not planted the right variety or planted at the right time. If I sold, I might not break even, and if I didn’t, I might lose the grains as there was no post-harvest equipment to dry and store them effectively; I was between a rock and a hard place. I eventually put together a contraption that I used to dry the maize, then later sold it at a profit some months later. But that experience made me ask questions, questions that I had no answers for. Like why should someone work so hard, perhaps work as hard as an elephant and eat like an ant? This was the lot of the farmers. In trying to find answers to the questions of low yields, post-harvest losses, and market linkages, I founded Kitovu Technology Company.
How does Kitovu innovate?
Nwachinemere Emeka: At Kitovu, innovation is not just a word or a platitude we bandy around; it is a core part of who we are. We innovate by challenging ourselves, by asking ourselves how it can be better? How can we solve the problems of smallholder farmers? I remember when we started, we initially thought we would leverage IoT to solve the problem of low yields. So we set to work and soon developed our prototype, “Soilsense.” But then, we ran a pilot, and it was a spectacular failure. First, it relied on the internet to transmit data, and it turned out that connectivity was lacking in most of the productive belts. In addition, we realized that for the particular set of people we wanted to solve, smallholder farmers just didn’t have the purchasing power to afford our services. That taught us a huge lesson on the importance of product-market fit to innovative design and guided us from there to where we are today. As of today, Kitovu leverages remote sensing and data science to provide the best-tailored inputs, crop protection, agronomy and extension advice, as well as market demand insights for smallholder farmers. In driving innovation, we understand that we must understand the problem and tailor the solution to meet the needs of the end-users. And that is how we innovate.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Nwachinemere Emeka: Lots of the farmers we work with cannot afford to purchase quality inputs. As such, Kitovu relied on Farmer Based Organisations who provide input financing for smallholder farmers to purchase services and inputs on behalf of the farmers. Unfortunately, a lot of the Farmer Based Organisations had exposures which made them operate very cautiously, and there was reduced input financing for farmers. This affected us greatly, as we also had reduced input sales. Asides from that, the bulk of our commodities sales were to corporate organizations. During the pandemic, some of them had to shut down operations. As a result, we had farmers with certain commodities but no clear sales point, so we decided to build a direct to client “foodcommerce” platform from scratch. It has not been an easy experience, but I am certain that we would come out of these challenges stronger and better for it.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Nwachinemere Emeka: One of the greatest lessons for us is the reinforcement of what we have always known; that the greatest asset of any business is its people. At Kitovu, the team is like a family, and when we hit challenges, everyone came together to find a way out. We had to propose a pay cut and then worked around the clock trying to find alternative routes to market for commodities because everyone understood that we had to do whatever it took to survive.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Kitovu in the future?
Nwachinemere Emeka: When I am stressed or anxious, I take a short walk, meditate, or listen to music. Sometimes, I also play strategy games, especially Football Manager. In all, I remind myself that it would get better no matter what. Now, let’s talk about the future. It is projected that the world’s population would hit 9.7 Billion by 2050 and that we would need to produce 60% more food to achieve that. Given the finite nature of arable lands, increasing soil degradation, and climate change, it is obvious that we need to drive ourselves to produce more from less. On this, I absolutely believe that Africa is the last frontier, the best hope of the world; and that an African future where Africa is the food hub of the world is possible. And I am convinced that Kitovu has her place right at the center of that African future. We are building an agricultural operating system for African agriculture, and we sincerely believe that a time would come that when anyone in any part of the world requires high-quality inputs or produce from Africa, they would have to Kitovu it.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Nwachinemere Emeka: At present, we have lots of competitors, especially given how we are structuring ourselves to be able to provide smallholder farmers with and an end to end solution from inputs to the market. Some of them play in one segment or use a different approach. They include Zenvus, Crop2Cash, Novus Agro, and Agrocenter. How do we plan to stay in the game? Well, if I told you that, it would no longer be a worthwhile playbook to follow, would it? Lol. By collecting soil and market demand data, which Kitovu analyzes and aggregates, Kitovu is able to accurately pinpoint the nutrient needs of a particular soil and get fertilizers that match that specific nutrient needs blended and supplied to the farmers.
When these location-specific fertilizers are combined with quality seeds and good agricultural practices provided by our agent network, the result is a yield increase. This prevents soils from being poisoned with serious doses of mismatched fertilizers. This also means that farmers are able to grow more from fewer lands; as such, they don’t have to clear more forests. It also means farmers spend less to produce more. On the other hand, the market demand data enables Kitovu to give farmers information on the crop varieties and specifications to grow to guarantee offtake from commodity buyers. As a result, we are able to provide an end to end solution for farmers, from farm to market, in a way nobody else provides as of today. For us, we plan to stay true to our vision and continue to build capabilities that enable us to provide a solution to any problems farmers might have. We would continue to engage the farmers we work with and understand our clients’ needs while continuing to find the best ways to solve their problems using technology. All these would eventually become an unfair advantage for us.
Your final thoughts?
Nwachinemere Emeka: Once upon a time, Africans discovered agriculture and taught the rest of the world. Then, hard work meant a high yield. But that is all in the past. Working harder is no longer a guaranty for optimal yields. Unfortunately, African farmers still work very hard, oblivious that the cheese has moved. To secure the future of food, it is greatly essential that Africa’s smallholder farmers who produce over 70% of all food production yet live under a dollar a day are empowered to produce more from less. It is in the interest of the world that this happens, as that is only how we can ensure that we expand food production for our expanding population. In times past, African resilience in food production ensured the world survived huge farmings. Going into the future, we need to be able to count on that same resilience, and we can if we can unlock finance and infrastructure to enable smallholder farmers to produce more optimally. But would we? Time will tell.
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