The agricultural sector in Nigeria has witnessed a good measure of growth over the past few years and the economic recession ravaging the country has seen many turn to agriculture for income and revenue generation. However, not only are they exploring the potentials in the sector, they are also discovering means of increasing yield and output. Innovation Village, recently caught up Emeka Nwachinemere (Founder and CEO of Kitovu) one of those revolutionizing the sector who in an exclusive interview took us on a journey into his innovation and much more.
Can you tell us about Kitovu and what it has to offer?
Kitovu is a mobile based inputs and produce warehousing system that collects, analyzes, and aggregates soil and geolocation data which we use to match the right soils to the right soil and crop specific fertilizers, improved seedlings, and agrochemicals while connecting farm produce to offatkers; so as to increase crop yields while reducing post harvest losses.
Providing farmers with soil and crop specific fertilizers guarantees increased yields since the fertilizers take into account the soils nutrient levels, and the crops nutrient requirements, but that has to be matched to improved seedlings for optimal yields. Agrochemical suited to the farm vegetation type has to be used for efficient weed control which impacts on how productive the farm operations would turn out. At the same time, through our produce offtaker network, we create guaranteed markets for farmers, at all times.
Kitovu was launched July 2016. The Kitovu Team comprises of young people who are passionate about transforming African agriculture into the hub that feeds the hub by leveraging emerging technology with skills that span extension, web and mobile development, business development, financial intelligence, and strategy.
What motivated the setting up of Kitovu?
My grandmother was a smallholder farmer, and so were several generations before her; who struggled to survive in the face of low crop yields and high post harvest losses, and our low family income sort of put us at a disadvantage; we had to work our way through school. On graduating from University, where I had studied Mechanical Engineering, I made up my mind to start my own business; but what and how I was going to do that eluded me, until I was posted for National Service. During National Youth Service, I was encouraged to start my own farm through the Agro-Allied Scheme, an occurrence that once again made me to live the life of smallholder farmers, and be reminded of their challenges; the suboptimal yields and post harvest losses they faced and which ultimately made them have very low incomes. And I was determined to change their fate, and mine in the process.
After over two years of research, I was convinced that it was possible to build a system that may not solve all the problems of farmers, but solve the significant ones, which for me were post harvest losses and suboptimal yields; with yields in Nigeria at a third of global yield averages while post harvest losses ranged between 40-60% annually. Kitovu Technology Company was birthed from that research.
What has the traction been like since its launch?
Kitovu is pretty quite early stage at the moment. At present, we have carried out three pilot phases of our project in three States of Nigeria; Bauchi, Niger, and Oyo States, working with the International Fertilizer Development Center to set up demonstration farms where we were able to achieve over 200% increase in crop yields; going from a National maize yield average of 1.2 Tons per Hectare to 4.2 Tons per Hectare. We have reached over 3000 smallholder farmers.
We make money through three major revenue sources; Sales of inputs, Input Produce Swap (where we give farmers inputs on credit and get paid with produce on harvest), and produce aggregation for processors and export offtakers.
However, despite how early stage we are at the moments, National and International plaudits for our innovative platform and business model has kept coming our way. In 2016, we won the Total Startupper Awards for Innovation; we were also recipients of the Nigerian Innovation Awards, for best Agricultural App. We won the World Bank/Wharthon Business School Ideas for Action 2017, were shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering Innovation Awards 2018 shortlist, as well as made it into the German government sponsored MAKE-IT Accelerator. All these make us hopeful that we would raise sufficient funding, enough to scale soon.
What is unique about the services the platform has to offer?
Soil testing helps increase crop yields because the farmer is able to know the nutrient deficiencies and give the soil exactly what it needs. Unfortunately, most smallholder farmers cannot afford soil testing or any form of precision farming.
Kitovu enables farmers enjoy the benefits of precision farming and soil testing, without having to pay for these things, by providing them with fertilizers that are blended to suit the crop and soil requirements. Again, in recognizing that a fertilizer only approach wouldn’t work, we also provide farmers with certified seedlings while providing agribusiness best practices through free extension and advisory services. These advisory services are provided through our micro-enterprise model that enables unemployed youths to work with us and earn a living through our platform.
We also provide inputs financing for farmers who can’t access farm credit and have them pay us using their harvest at the end of farming season. But most importantly, we provide guaranteed markets for our farmers through our offtaker network.
What are the challenges encountered since Kitovu launched?
Our journey so far has been strewn with challenges. For a start, it was a tough call deciding on what technology to employ that would be effective and at the same time affordable. Making that trade-off was difficult but necessary considering that most farmers practice survivalist agriculture. Asides farmers income levels, there was the low mobile connectivity and literacy levels in distant pocket locations we were targeting. But as often times that out of chaos order come out, something beautiful came out from these challenges in the form of our business model innovation, which enabled us to use the problem of increasing youth unemployment to tackle the challenges of product market fit through our Kitopreneur Microenterprise Initiative.
Again, because we have to pay for farmers produce, prior to supplying offtakkers who sometimes have very long cash cycles, as well as the need for us to pay upfront for soil and crop specific fertilizer blends, we needed to have a lot of funds to meet those financial obligations. And that has sort of limited our scale.
What advice do you have for prospective entrepreneurs out there?
This is the best time to be born as an African. We are in a new eon; one where the entire business is built around solving problems that faces society, which is the core foundation of social enterprise. Fortunately, Africa is plagued with lots of behemoth like problems facing it; problems that must be solved by Africans. And in these lie great opportunity.
That said, building a business isn’t a walk in the pack, it’s fraught with challenges. Most of your assumptions would fail and revenues would come slower than your expenses, but you must learn to play for the long term. For successful businesses are seldom sprints; they are a marathon.
What are the future plans for Kitovu?
Kitovu is operational in Oyo State Nigeria. Next year, we plan to expand to six other states of Nigeria. Next year, we expect to reach over 200,000 farmers and train about 2000 micro entrepreneurs. Our long term objective is to eventually scale operations across Nigeria, and beyond to other Sub Saharan Africa, so that in time to come, when people require high quality produce or inputs, all they need to do is Kitovu it!
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