Interview with the CEO and Founder of Kitovu, Emeka Nwachinemere

Kitovu is an agriculture-focused technology company that uses data to eliminate guesswork and supply chain inefficiencies in African agriculture, enabling farmers to make more money off their products through increased yields and access to markets. 

Kitovu aims to transform Africa into the hub that feeds the world by leveraging technology to solve problems that affect Africa’s agriculture all across the value chains, from farm to consumer, in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 2- Zero hunger. 

Space in Africa had a chat with Emeka Nwachinemere, the founder and CEO of Kitovu. He shared a few insights into the company’s offerings, milestones and ambitions.

Can you please walk me through your company’s background? 

Kitovu has a unique story that dates back to the personal frustrations that I faced several years ago. In 2014, while serving my fatherland at Iseyin, Oyo State, under the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) auspices, I became part of the Agro-Allied Scheme. Under this initiative, the Oyo State government provided free land for one year to corps members interested in farming. I received 5 Hectares of land where I cultivated maize, with limited resources and I did most of the farm operations manually, and it was very tough. Then came the time of harvest, and I got a rude awakening. 

First, I didn’t get a good result in yielding and accessing the markets that offered fair prices was nearly impossible, especially as I had mistimed the planting period. Fortunately, I salvaged the situation by fabricating a local dryer that allowed me to dry and store the maize and sell for a much better price. However, that experience forced me to start asking questions, especially since I discovered that it happens to many farmers. 

This prompted me to start looking for solutions to questions such as; 

  • Why were the crop yields so low compared to global yield averages? 
  • Why do farmers earn so little compared to the effort they put in? 
  • Why were the post-harvest losses so high, often ranging between 40-60% per annum? 

In trying to find answers to those questions, I started Kitovu Technology Company. 

How does Kitovu help farmers connect farm produce to consumers?

Kitovu adopts a market-driven approach to connect farm produce to end consumers. First, we create relationships with major buyers, access information from them on what crop varieties they prefer and possible quantities they procure. Then, armed with this information, we get smallholder farmers who can work with us to grow precisely those varieties. This process creates a guaranteed market for the farmers as a result. 

For example, to get cassava farmers to take advantage of Starch processing companies, we get the farmers to grow the TMS 419 cassava variety, preferred by most starch companies for its high starch content. 

Can you explain how FarmSwap works? 

FarmSwap is an input finance scheme. We simply provide prequalified farmers with inputs (fertilisers, seeds, chemicals) on credit, and they pay us back the value and some interest at harvest in the form of their farm produce. We work with finance-focused organisations that fund, purchase the needed inputs and provide to smallholder farmers; then make recoveries when farmers make payment using their produce. 

You have several offerings and solutions for farmers; please explain in detail how they work. 

Kitovu offers a blend of products and services. We provide farmers with FarmPack, a bundled offering of fertilisers, seeds, and agrochemicals. We also offer FarmSwap, our input finance scheme. There is also our commodities supply service, eProcure. In terms of services, we provide Fertilizer Recommendation, Plant Health and Water Stress Analysis. To deliver precise services to smallholder farmers, Kitovu adopts a data-driven approach. First, we collect the farm and farmer’s data, including GPS coordinates, farm size, and crops grown, which we link to our remote sensing API. Then, by leveraging remote sensing, we determine the best fertiliser needs of the farmer and how he should apply it across his farm (Fertilizer Recommendation). We also provide clean crop health insights (Plant Health Analysis) and determine the level of water stress and need for irrigation (Water Stress Analysis). We adopt commissioned-based agents to interact with the farmer so that the farmer does not have to be burdened with owning or using a smartphone. 

Water stress analysis. Source: Kitovu Technology Company

Discuss some of your company’s success stories and important milestones.

Currently, Kitovu has enabled over 7,000 smallholder farmers to cut down input costs by 30%, increase their yields by 50%, and achieve 100% sales of their produce. In addition, we have built digital platforms on mobile and web with Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) capabilities, with English, French and Urdu versions. We are currently running a pilot in Pakistan at the moment. Our work has attracted several National and International Awards, including the UN STI Innovation Award, Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation Shortlist, Total Startupper Award for Innovation, World Bank Ideas for Action Innovation Award, etc.

What are the challenges you currently face? How do you plan to overcome these challenges? 

The major challenge we face is the low purchasing power of smallholder farmers, which translates to offering FarmSwap to farmers to afford improved seeds and precision services. Getting partnerships with financial institutions has been laborious, owing to the reluctance to invest in the agricultural sector, which is considered risky. For now, we are limiting the number of farmers we work with as we make efforts to attract more partners. Furthermore, we focus on making the agricultural sector more attractive to financial institutions by building out different farmers’ risk and credit profiles. We are also seeking to explore insurance partners who can provide comprehensive micro-insurance for the input finance. These plans, I believe, would derisk the space and attract more partnerships from financial institutions.

What source of funding is available to you?

Kitovu has operated primarily by bootstrapping. However, we have benefited from grants from organisations such as Total, and we are currently seeking voluntary contributions from individuals, businesses, and charitable foundations.

Can you discuss your revenue figures and also talk briefly about your partners? 

It is still early days in terms of revenue. However, we had generated close to USD 200,000 in revenue to date, from 2018 when we started commercial operations. In our work, we have partnered with organisations like AFEX Commodities Exchange, Acto Fertilizers. Foodbank Growmore Limited, and Standard Cassava Processors. 

What other projects are you currently undertaking? What future projects are you planning? 

For now, we are working to improve our FarmSwap offering so that we can provide more farmers with input financing. From the 3rd quarter, 2021, we would develop risk and credit profiles on our platform to de-risk agricultural lending. Kitovu will also launch a storage facility as a service product offering. 

Tell me about your current staff strength.

Kitovu currently has a seven-man team with a combined 47 years of experience around core competencies like business development, technology, agronomy extension, etc. 

How do you plan to bring other stakeholders together from other African nations to increase the reach of your services? 

In 2020, we commenced rebuilding our digital platform. It is now undergoing Beta testing and would soon be available on Google Play. This new version would allow different service providers to list their services on the platform- from mechanisation to services. In addition, it would be available in English, French and Urdu, allowing a much more diverse user base access to our services. We also recently launched an Enterprise plan that enables other agribusinesses to upsell our services to some of the farmers they work with, thereby creating a source of revenue for themselves. We believe that this approach would enable us to scale our services to more farmers across Africa.