Tanzanian entrepreneur Rose Funja believes that information and communication technologies (ICTs) hold the key to a better future for young women, especially in the agriculture sector. Setting an example for them all, she has launched a start-up that links small-scale farmers to financial institutions – and is now turning her thoughts to drones.
An ICT start-up that grew out of a CTA hackathon contest is poised to help solve one of the most intractable problems facing farmers in Tanzania – how to show banks that they own the land they farm, so that they can secure loans using it as collateral.
Behind AgrInfo, which uses geographical information system technology to map information about farmland and the crops it produces, is dynamic ICT specialist and entrepreneur Rose Funja. The idea came to her and her partner Grace Makanyaga as a solution for tree farmers, but the young women quickly realised there was potential for scaling out the concept to reach other producers. In many parts of Tanzania, land ownership is unrecorded, aside from in village customary documents, making it difficult for farmers to obtain credit.
"We all know that for a smallholder farmer, the farm is their major asset," said Funja. "AgrInfo profiles the farmer and the farming business – the farm, the location, the size, the produce – and posts this data on an online platform, then gives access to this to financial services who use it to assess the creditworthiness of the farmers and give them loans."
The business concept received a major boost when AgrInfo won the runner-up prize in the CTA AgriHack Talent Programme for East Africa in 2013, a contest 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 addresses a specific challenge.
Refining the business model
In the run-up to the tournament finals, Funja and Makanyaga received technical support to develop their idea, 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 the audience. After the hackathon, a follow-up phase offered incubation and mentoring from a local ICT innovation hub, together with smartphones and a cash prize of €4,000, which proved invaluable as a first investment.
"The help of CTA and the training we received took our idea to a whole new set of levels," said Funja. "That's when everything started rolling out, and it's been a roller coaster ever since."
Rose and her new business partner – Makanyaga is no longer closely involved in the start-up – are currently running a marketing campaign to explain the AgrInfo service to farmers, mainly targeting producer organisations. The service works on a subscription basis, with the charge added to producer-organisation membership fees for farmers who decide to sign up.
The cost of the service is deliberately pitched at an affordable price, and Funja predicts that it will pay for itself in terms of better access to credit for farmers, so that they can expand operations.
"We go and collect the GPS coordinates for a farm and check the ownership," she explained. "We couple that with an assessment of what is produced on the farm, as a basis for a credit analysis. We also update the data as time goes on, which will increase a farm's credit worthiness. So if a farm increases from one to five hectares, for example, the bank sees the growth and will be more willing to make a loan."
Future plans involve extending the database model to cover the entire value chain, connecting farmers with farm supplies, extension workers, weather forecasts and a host of other value-added data, including information on markets.
Always on the lookout for new horizons, Funja is currently exploring the idea of offering a drone service to monitor land maintenance, aimed at reducing damage by fires. Firebreaks – cleared pathways between land boundaries of between 1 and 5 metres – can be effective in preventing fire from spreading from one farm to another, but keeping them from becoming overgrown can be a challenge, and each year hundreds of hectares of farmland are burned.
An ICT boot camp for girls
Funja is firmly convinced that ICTs are the way forward for development in Africa, and especially for women. She is the co-founder of a network in Tanzania that promotes women's involvement in ICTs. Called She Codes for Change, the organisation recently ran a month-long ICT boot camp for girls aged 14–19, introducing them to technologies such as web applications, video-game design and electronics.
"ICTs can definitely open up new opportunities for women and I think it's important for them to venture into technology at an early age," said Funja, who in 2014 spent six weeks in New York after being selected as young female leader for US President Obama's project, the Young African Leaders Initiative. She is also director of ICT at the University of Bagamoyo, and as a result of her contacts with farmers for AgrInfo, she has recently entered the sector herself, cultivating sesame.
"What I would like to see is women becoming more educated in using technology for socio-economic purposes, instead of just social engagement. So rather than seeing mobile phones and the Internet as a way of spending time on social media, I would like them to understand that it can be a very valuable tool to help them improve their livelihoods, for example by enabling them to sell their crops for a better price by accessing information about markets."