Ujuzikilimo is an agricultural technology company that was founded by Brian Bosire five years ago. It offers affordable precision farming to small-scale farmers in Kenya, helping them produce more crops and fight hunger.
I had a chat with Bosire at the recent Youth Africa Works summit held in Kigali and he shared how the company started, what they plan to achieve and what impact they have to farmers.
Q: How did you start Ujuzikilimo/that system?
A: From a young age I was always at the farm with my parents and we could spend a lot of time doing manual work but at the end of the day the harvest was little compared to the work and resources used. Clearly there was a problem with efficiency. Production optimization was an issue.
At college I was taking engineering and had an idea to create a system that could help farmers determine what seeds they needed based on the soil they have, what fertilizers are good and information on where to get the seeds.
Q: Did you have any knowledge of developing such sophisticated Hi-tech tools?
A: Yes! In my first year at campus I started my first company called Electrosoft. It was a company that developed technologies driven by innovation specifically in the sectors of agriculture, water sanitation and energy. The idea I had in agriculture was Ujuzikilimo (Knowledge farming). I wanted to build a tool any farmer could use to understand what inputs they needed and what to do to manage a crop from maturity till harvest.
In 2012 the idea was already there but it wasn’t until 2015 that we came up with the first prototype. It’s when we developed our first working technology. We built a device that used sensors to measure the soil quality in terms of fertility, soil acidity and capture farm locations using GPS.
A farmer only had to stick the device in the ground and within three minutes get an SMS with the quantity of fertilizers they needed based on the quality of the soil. We wanted farmers to make informed decisions around input selection to help them not invest a lot in something that wont make economic sense to them.
(Bosire and a farmer collecting data from the soil.)
(Data from the soil being analyzed)
( Farmer receiving data collected from the soil)
Q: How did Ujuzikilimo raise capital to start?
A: Like most start-ups, we struggled to get capital. From savings, loans and small donations from friends and family we raised $4000. The American Society for engineers recognized us in a global award and helped a lot with the technical work and financed the project with $15,000. That’s how we got our first solid capital.
Q: How do you approach farmers and sell them your idea when most of them have only used a phone and a radio as far as technology goes?
A: One of the main things we’ve learnt from working with farmers is that they are not skeptical about technology. They are more concerned if it’s solving a problem they have. It cuts across anyone you are trying to sell a product to.
Even though we are a technology company. We don’t want to sell ourselves to farmers as a tech company. It’s good to talk like that to investors and everyone on the business side. But to the market side the question is, are you solving a problem I have? I cannot predict the weather; I’m not able to access finances for inputs and I can’t sell my produce. Can you help me?
Q: How is the Kenyan government involved? Are there any policies in place that help companies like Ujuzikilimo?
A: The government is encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs but it’s only talk, because when you go into practicality you’ll need funding. The government says that they provide low interest loans but these loans won’t be given to small businesses because they have no collateral. You find that these loans are preferential to existing businesses that have records for being operational for some time. So there are policies attracting young people but there’s no money.
On a positive note, the government has been supporting subsidies when it comes to input distribution which is a good thing to small-scale farmers. Then the big question is, is this sustainable? Is this something that will be here 20 years from now?
Anything that is led by the private sector provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to come up with better models, employment opportunities and create a sustainable, competitive ecosystem.
Q: What has been the feedback like from the farmers?
A: Most of the farmers we started with used to produce cereals on a two-acre piece of land and economically the state of production on that land wasn’t good enough especially with mono cropping. They had been doing this for years.
Once we went in and did the soil analysis, we were able to give them advice on alternative crops they could grow that could increase their returns. A farmer growing maize on a two-acre piece of land makes around $50 but the same farmers who shifted to growing vegetables on the same piece of land are making $200. So we have seen over 35% increment in productivity per farm and we are still growing.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face?
A: From the business development side, we face a challenge of accessing capital because we are not yet a company that is cash flow positive. We still re-invest all the money we get to grow and I believe access to capital is still a challenge in Africa.
Another challenge is lack of talent and technical skills. It’s also a common issue faced by many start-ups because since you don’t have enough money, you can’t afford to hire the best in that sector.
On the market side, we still need a lot of support. As a young company, working with big organizations is difficult. Most organizations working in seed and fertilizer distribution have their own agenda in most cases and tend to overshadow what the young companies are doing. I wish we worked with them because they have a bigger reach and influence to help the farmer.
It would be great if start-ups and big organizations focused on empowering the farmers and aggregate our services and not competing for the same spot.
Q: Where do you see Ujuzikilimo in the next 5 years?
A: I see Ujuzikilimo as the ultimate source of knowledge to farmers. Our goal is to ensure that we transform agriculture into knowledge driven, commercially viable activity for any small-scale farmer. And for that to happen, we still have a number of things to put in place. We look at ourselves as a data driven company and we know that most challenges affecting the agriculture sector currently are due to lack of information and data.
The reason why farmers can’t access finances is because there’s no data to back them while seeking loans. It goes further to insurance because with no data, the risk is simply too high for insurance companies.
Ujuzikilimo is here to bridge the knowledge gap both from the farmer’s side and the industry side. We want to enhance precision knowledge so that they make smart decisions on the farm, they use the right inputs, and they are able to economically generate a business out of the agriculture activities on the farm.
Q: Any last word for someone with dreams to start their own business?
A: Start! Many people have great ideas and I always challenge them that a good idea is not enough but it’s the first step towards a good direction. Challenges will always be there when starting up and what will help you overcome is your passion and persistence. You constantly have to learn more in your field and seek advice from the right people.