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Leading edge tech bears fruit in Kenya

Leading edge tech bears fruit in Kenya

Fusing her actuarial science background with an entrepreneurial spirit, 28-year-old Leonida Mutuku is reinventing the face of agriculture in Kenya, one farmer at a time.

Mutuku's company is the Nairobi-based Intelipro, which is described as 'a boutique data-science consultancy'. The company is two years old, and has rolled out its eGranary platform for the East African Farmers Federation, which represents about 20 million farmers in the region. Through the platform, farmers log the metrics of the production on their farm, such as the number of seeds planted, how much fertiliser has been used, or how much they've paid their workers.

They're then scored for financial services, such as credit and insurance. eGranary is a mobile platform accessed by USSD; farmers just dial *492#.

And it's not just the farmers' data: weather data, soil data from the government - and soon satellite imagery - is used to predict a farm's productivity, from which a credit score is generated.

Analytics

Mutuku says while the current product supports the farmer obtaining credit, it is also helping them make better predictions from the productivity data they're logging.

But while the data is of use to her company and farmer federations and off-takers, farmers are not receiving these advanced analytics.

"Ultimately all they have is their mobile phone. It's not even an app. The next step is how to give the intelligence back to these farmers based on what they've been logging with us."

The project is now a year old, and there are about 25 000 farmers using the platform. About $150 000 worth of credit has been paid out, mainly to maize farmers.

Mutuku says the project is important to her because of its impact, and Intelipro is going to be investing in the lending float, or, as she says, 'putting our money where our mouth is'.

Mutuku completed her undergraduate degree in actuarial science at the University of Nairobi, and is now reading for her Master's degree in business analytics and big data at the IE business school in Madrid.

Insights into mobile money

She says the motivation behind starting Intelipro was that very few businesses in Kenya, and Africa, are using data to drive decisions and improve efficiencies. Its main focus is in the financial and retail sectors, with a particular focus on SMEs. It supports financial institutions with micro-loan services, mainly by analysing microlending portfolios using risk analytics. Retailers, too, are also interested in the lending space, particularly in how to extend credit to merchants.

With Kenya's rich ecosystem of mobile money, Mutuku says there are incredible insights to be gained through the analysis of digital wallets, which show transactions and the cash flows of businesses.

Intelipro's lending platform connects to different data points, including mobile money APIs. It then applies machine learning, such as predictive modelling, to generate credit scores and limits.

Mutuku says the Kenyan market isn't mature and there's still opportunity to release new financial products. Analytics is still not being used much, especially by companies still using legacy systems.

"The banks are now trying to catch up, but I think we are bit more agile, and it's easier for them to partner with us than to roll out their own services."

She says Kenyan banks are notorious in that after working with Intelipro for a few months, they'll say 'we can do this' (ourselves).

"The problem is they won't do it as well, because they're not fully focused on that."

There are also wider opportunities.

"We're always looking outward because we think the Kenyan market will easily reach saturation," says Mutuku, adding there is plenty of interest in the company's solutions from Ghana, DRC, Uganda and Tanzania.

"Once you step out of the borders of Kenya, there's an entire continent of opportunity where the infrastructure is not as evolved as it is in other countries."

But there are barriers to intra-African trade; "We're siloed within our own borders."

"Our African stories are told a lot by the international media, which is something we're not too happy about. We would like to tell more of our own stories. As Africans we need to be a bit more proactive about that."

Figuring it out

Indeed, if it were not that Mutuku appeared on stage during the keynote address at this year's VMworld conference in Barcelona recently, her story would have perhaps never been heard beyond Kenya.

Mutuku says it's important her business has 100% uptime, and is less interested in the nuts and bolts of how her technology partner - managed cloud provider Node Africa - manages this.

"All I know is that I login and I spin up."

In hindsight, Node Africa's CEO Phares Kariuki says he's still not sure it was bravery or stupidity which led him to establish his company in six weeks, especially since he had little in the way of capital. His solution was to do away with physical networking and build his stack on VMware.

"But we decided to launch, and thought we'd figure it out as we go along," he says.

He bought some servers and basic switches, but had run out of money when it came to purchasing routers.

He's a long time VMware user, and reading through the documentation for the company's NSX virtualisation platform, it appeared it would be possible to do without physical routers.

"Let's see if this works," he remembers saying.

This was two years ago, and Node Africa still hasn't gotten around to buying any routers.

"We have yet to go down," he says, adding it now has about 65 individual customers, of which about half were large enterprises.

With regards to cloud, some of his customers 'just get it', and mentions an investment bank that is moving its infrastructure to Node Africa. He also has clients nursing legacy systems they aren't prepared to give up yet.

He says access to credit in the local market has dried up and he's seen two major retailers close down recently.

"The net effect is that companies can no longer spend their capital on IT equipment. If you're a factory, are you going to spend the little capital you have on more equipment? Or are you going to spend it on IT, because you no longer have a line of credit where you can do both."

This state of affairs, says Kariuki, has meant that more and more companies are now slowly beginning their journey to the cloud.

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