How 25 year-old Esther Karwera’s Akorion serves 60,000 farmers in Uganda

Bringing a lasting solution to the myriad of problems stacked against the growth of agriculture in Africa remains a major challenge to Africans and the world at large. Africa has 1.2 billion hectares of agricultural land, representing 23% of global agricultural land. Also, the continent, which is seen as the ‘food basket’ of the world, has the largest share of arable land in the world (16%) and the largest share of uncultivated arable land (79%).  According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the entire continent will be able to feed itself, and still have enough for foreign exchange, if its arable land is properly harnessed and fully utilized. However, prevailing issues like storage, lack of mechanized farming equipment, outdated technology and logistics have forced over 239 million Africans to remain hungry over the years. Esther Karwera’s Akorion is fiercely tackling these issues, starting with Uganda in East Africa..

Since 2014, Akorion has been deploying ICT tools to drive down the cost of mobilizing and training farmers, through the use of infographics and animation. They have also distributed hermetic storage equipment to 8,000 Farmers in 10 districts in Uganda. The hermetic storage equipment, commonly known as silos, have helped these farmers to safely store their grain for long periods of time. This has in turn enabled them to sell their grain at higher prices, during off-season periods.

By digitally profiling and testing the soils of 100,000 farmers in order to provide them with crop-specific blended fertilizer, Akorion assures farmers they are applying the right fertilizer to boost their yields and incomes.

Akorion is also leveraging mobile money to enable farmers pay for the storage silos securely and timely from the comfort of their homes.

In a recent chat with Outrepreneurs, Esther Karwera, the University of Makerere alumna Co-Founder and Chief Business Development Officer of Akorion explains how the Ugandan agritech startup operates.

Esther Karwera, Co-Founder, Akorion

What is Akorion all about?            

Akorion is an agritech company, focused on digitizing the value chain, so we can bring marketing and production closer to smallholder farmers and other agribusinesses, like exporters who are into produce and food processors who are looking for quality and volume of produce. Our major aim is to at least make sure that the farmers receive the production and marketing services at a lower cost. They are able to see where their service providers are. The problem in Uganda is that smallholder farmers are really left out and they are the people who are contributing the most to the economy of Uganda, to the food basket and they are the same people that are being left out in terms of getting information about services and getting markets. So that is what drove Akorion to using ICT to build a better platform where farmers are able to get closer to service providers easily and at a more affordable price. We have been able to achieve this through our flagship platform called EzyAgric.

The EzyAgric software suite is a marketplace that brings together all the small holder farmers and service providers like financial institutions, input companies and insurance companies in one place. Normally, people who ask smallholders to merge do not provide them with tools such as smartphones, so it is not easy for them to actually use their platform. So, we use a network of youth service providers (who are equipped with smartphones) that we call ‘Village agents’ and each of them serves at least 150-200 farmers. With that, we have been able to create an impact by really getting to the smallholder farmers and getting the youths employed in rural areas.

Akorion youth village agent interviewing smallholder farmers, using smartphone

When did you start this venture?

We started this towards the end of 2014 and got incorporated in 2015.

How has the progression been in terms of figures and users?

We are now serving 60,000 smallholder farmers across the country, in 48 districts of Uganda and we are doing this with 485 village agents who are equipped with smartphones. We are constantly looking for ways to access more farmers because we have a market of 6.2million farmers that can access our services. So you can see we have barely scratched the surface on the number of farmers we are supposed to service. We hope that by 2020 we will have been able to have about 1.2million farmers that are accessing services from us.

What are the challenges you currently encounter in terms of expansion and growth?

Being a growing company that is using technology to serve semi-literate people, it is really challenging, especially when you look at the gap between where you want the farmers to be and where they are, right now. So, we have to move the farmers from what they are using right now to a better situation where they can make more income and reap more from agriculture. And the fact that we are introducing new technologies with the youth in the village also requires that we impart a lot of skills in them, because we expect these youths to be our representatives within their communities. We expect them to be able to build a business and maintain it. For a start-up, if you have crossed two years, you have survived the start-up death, but now you imagine this is put down to a youth deep in a village who you expect to almost own a business and to maintain customers and get new ones, they need to be taught skills imparted in them; they need to be tech savvy.

Another skill that they need is the entrepreneurial skill, because this person serving 150 farmers, it is a small business to them. They [should] know how to maintain a business and this takes time. You have to train them over and over again. This takes time and a lot of money. But the truth is, for us to survive, they also have to survive. Going through all that as a company has not been very easy. The screening, personnel maintenance, making sure they are skilled is not really an easy task. The other things I would consider challenging are general things like adopting new technology, because technology is always changing. Today, you may feel you have got the best application and the next day you realize you are a kid in the tech world. While it is easy for us to adapt, what about the people we work with?

Smallholder farmers pose with their grain silos, courtesy WFP and Akorion

What have you learnt as a startup founder in the course of this business?

As a start-up founder, I have learnt that good things come to those who wait and you have to put other people first, if you want to sustain your start-up. For example, at Akorion, we focus on impacting the smallholder farmers and our village agents positively. If you do this, making a lot of money will come later. When you look for quick wins, you will fail.  No one will give you loans or equity before they see value in your start-up; you have to first create value for yourself, before you look at making quick wins. The other thing I know is that passion really drives you. If you have a passion for what you do, you will make it. It is not a smooth sail; you will definitely meet storms. If the government is coming to you for taxes, how will you be able to overcome that, this is one of the many storms you may face. Another thing is that as a start-up founder, you have to wear many hats. You will handle finances, run after [new] business and all of that. But at a later stage, as the business grows, you have to let go of some duties. It is hard to let go, because you may feel that when you trust other people they will ruin things. We look at our businesses like our babies, having fears that someone else will not be able to handle it the way we would. But at some point, you have to let go and let someone else handle some aspects,, while you pursue other things for the sake of the business.  This will make your company develop faster.

In terms of revenue?

It has not been bad at all. For the past two years we have had about 400% revenue growth. We even wonder how we have been able to achieve that. This shows us that people appreciate what we are doing and it motivates us more.

Do you wish to expand or tweak your business process?

Yes. Once we have firmly and totally put roots in Uganda, we are looking at expanding into neighboring countries. We think there are some virgin places out there, like Rwanda and Tanzania. We also have plans to come to Nigeria. If we have people to partner with there, it would be a good place to come to. But first, we need to answer questions like how are we going to approach the people in these countries? Can we easily replicate our business model there? These are some of the questions we need to answer, before expansion.

What will you say is your greatest asset in the business?

Actually, my greatest asset right now is the village agents. To network on ground is not an easy thing to do. This is a business that requires you to reach out to the last mile and the network on ground does a lot of work on this.

Another asset is the smallholder farmers that we serve. If you go to the village, you will know that though I am very young, I am touching the lives of some 80 year old. Instead of having them go to the city, they are enjoying the services they really need, where they are. We really treasure them so much and believe they are at our hearts; they are the people who hold us together.

Thirdly, Akorion has a great team. The team is really good, I must say. Those are my three greatest assets.

Akorion staff enlightening smallholder farmers about benefits of ICT

How has the issue of funding been like? Was there any time you required external funding?

After two and a half years in business, we have just started seeking for external funding. But before we started looking for funding, we have had to first understand the vision and the value of our company. Then, we focused on making initial revenue, using personal saving or assistance from family and friends as initial capital. We also did enough market survey and let our target clients first appreciate our services before seeking external investment.

Generally speaking, as an entrepreneur, it is vital to understand what kind of investors you have to approach at certain stages of seeking funds

What have you learned in business that you did not learn in college?

Starting and running a business comes with more responsibilitiesthat one would not anticipate. In college you are a dependent, but outside you become looked up to by your employees, family, friends and community. You want to not disappoint not only yourself but even the people around you. I have learnt to juggle many things at a time, while keeping focus. Above all, you can never stop learning. Take every opportunity to improve yourself and grow.

Smallholder farmer excited about his maize yield

You were one of the women selected as the World Economic Forum top Female Innovators in Africa. Tell us what impact you intend to make in that new capacity?

Receiving this award was really a great honor. This new capacity has given me more confidence and belief that you do not have to start big to reap big; you do not have to be from a certain background to do something significant.

I intend to use this opportunity to reach out to more girls from different backgrounds who have no access to certain opportunities, but have the zeal to significantly make a change within their communities. We have already started this through STEM Uganda, since 2016, where we train young girls of 13-18 years of age in Entrepreneurship, Technology and healthy life choices. I hope to take this to a higher level and provide more opportunities.

In partnership with Savannah Commodities, Akorion has undertaken a Feed the Future Uganda Fertilizer Innovation Alliance for supplying crop-specific blended fertilizer and is presently creating a database of 100,000 farmers. This will engage a total of 4000 youths in the different Agribusiness Services by the end of 2018.

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Chiamaka Akuba37 Posts

Chiamaka Akuba is a graduate of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is passionate about emerging markets and entrepreneurship and is actively working with the industry. She loves her conversations challenging and can’t help laughing when you call her ‘Honourable Writer of the Federal Republic'. Chiamaka is a Staff Writer at Outrepreneurs.

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