30 years

Hackathon launches apps for agriculture

Poor access to credit and savings, uncertainty about which fertiliser to use, difficulties in attracting capital and ensuring efficient farm management – these are some of the most intractable problems facing small-scale farmers in ACP countries, so addressing them can make all the difference between success and failure.

An event organised by CTA and partners to develop ICT solutions for agricultural challenges has done just that. Called the Agrihack Championship, the initiative was based on the idea of a hackathon – a gathering that brings together computer programmers for a short period of time to develop an ICT application or platform that offers solutions for a specific challenge.

But this was a hackathon with a difference. Determined to produce concrete results with a real impact for young entrepreneurs and small-scale producers, CTA organisers decided to customise the concept and make it more of a learning and entrepreneurial exercise. Instead of lasting just a few days or a week, this first CTA "hackathon" and its accompanying activities were spread over the space of a year, with preparation and follow-up activities to support participants.

The Agrihack Championship, which focused on East Africa, took the form of a regional tournament, with key stakeholders involved in the preliminary phase to identify the agricultural challenges needing solutions from ICT applications. A series of national selection events was held before the nine most promising entries, drawn from six countries, were invited to the finals, held in Kigali, Rwanda on November 7, 2013 as part of CTA's 2013 ICT4Ag Conference. All the entries were from young people interested in developing ICT solutions for agriculture. Many of them are still students.

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Partners for the hackathon were the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI, Rwanda), the Ministry of Youth and ICT (MYICT, Rwanda), AGRA, Microsoft Africa, mLab East and other key ICT hubs from the region.

Coaching is key

A key ingredient in the mix was bringing together a broad range of expertise from the ICT, agriculture and business sectors, to provide support and help take products to the next level.

In the run up to the big day, the ICT team members received technical support to develop their applications, as well as advice on how to draw up a business model, how to approach investors and how to pitch their idea to the judges and audience.
After the hackathon, a follow-up phase offered incubation and mentoring for the winning entries. The regional winners have been linked up with partnering ICT innovation hubs and offered six months of technical and business support, including contact with potential investors and opportunities to promote their applications. The teams have all retained the intellectual property rights for their inventions.

"This is a new model for a hackathon, and one which has been very innovative," said Ken Lohento, ICT Programme Coordinator for CTA. "In other hackathons, a lot of applications are drafted or developed in a couple of days, but most of them are not finalised and remain unexploited. From the beginning, we were determined to accompany the best young developers, so that their products could be fine-tuned, tested, and so we could help them to meet investors."

One of the nine finalists – Farmdrive from Kenya – has been approached by an investor interested in developing the idea. Another entry and overall regional winner Ensibuuko from Uganda has succeeded in attracting investment from a crowdfunding platform. Arrangements are being made to help some of the other best participants to meet investors.

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"We are interested in promoting youth innovation and youth entrepreneurship. Unemployment is a major problem in Africa, so if we can develop an entrepreneurship culture and help young people to set up businesses, not only will that be a fine opportunity for them, but it will also create opportunities for other people in the agriculture sector," said Lohento. "Ultimately, the agricultural sectors will be modernised and more efficient."

The work of the ICT hubs, which organised the national selection process and coached the winners after the event, has been critical to the success of the CTA hackathon. Each hub that supported the winning teams was awarded a trophy and a matching grant of €3,000 to contribute to their expenses.

Innovative ideas

Solutions that reached the finals included a web and mobile-based geographic information system platform for mapping farms and lands. The app, developed by a team from Tanzania, won the first runner-up prize of €4,000, plus smartphones and incubation support. A digital platform developed by two young men from Uganda has been designed to connect key youth stakeholders in East Africa along the agricultural value chain, allowing interaction through social media and blogs. A team from Madagascar has developed a web-based app that brings together information sharing, farm management and task planning.

One idea that failed to make the top three places, but has been selected for incubation support due to its high potential, is a Rwandan product that tests soil fertility in real time. Called Fertilizer Logic, this electronic device determines the fertility content of soil by using nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and pH sensors and relays results to extension officers by mobile phone or web applications, so they can tell farmers which fertiliser to use and in what quantity.

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Such has been the success of the event that plans are already under way to stage the next CTA hackathon programme, this time in the Caribbean. Others will follow in regions which express an interest in the initiative.

"Many of the ideas launched here have real potential," said Lohento. "The competition shows that young people in Africa are highly innovative and can use their ICT skills to find solutions for agriculture."

For more information on the hackathon