Elizabeth Onyango is a young Kenyan entrepreneur, CEO of start-up Ukulima Tech that she founded in 2016 to improve food security in her country, which is hit hard by climate change.
One of Ukulima Tech’s flagship services is SMS-based platform Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), which in November 2018 was announced as the second-place winner of the UK Aid-funded Tekeleza Prize, receiving USD 75,000 (Learn more here).
It was Elizabeth’s participation in the competition that led her to move beyond food security, to focus on climate information and develop CSA, which disseminates forecasts in formats that can be understood by farmers, helping them to adapt to climate change.
‘The Tekeleza Prize made me realise that we cannot talk about food security if we don’t talk about climate variability. So we integrated climate information, which farmers need to make informed decisions on what to plant and when, in our adaptation and mitigation strategies’, says Elizabeth.
CSA not only disseminates forecasts on temperature and rainfall volume and pattern, but also provides alerts on extreme weather events. Moreover, it informs and advises users on harvesting, fertilisers application and seed varieties that they should use based on anticipated climate variability.
Bridging the gap between communities and forecasters
Thanks to the Tekeleza Prize, Elizabeth developed a product that provides the missing link between rural communities, especially women, and weather forecasters.
Traditionally, the Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) distributes climate information through print media, TV, radio and the internet. However, these media are either not accessible to farmers or, in the case of the radio, stations are not received everywhere. On the other hand, 87% of Kenyans own a mobile phone and the information sent via SMS can be consulted whenever it is convenient. This is how Elizabeth’s idea of relying on SMS was born.
Every Monday morning, she receives climate information from KMD and spends around four hours interpreting, decoding and translating it into jargon-free messages. These are then disseminated to subscribers, mainly farmers, on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis, via SMS which cost 3 shillings each (the equivalent of USD 3 cents).
The messages are in English, Swahili or Kamba, a local dialect of the south-eastern region, depending on the selection users make upon subscription.
‘SMS have character limits, so we need to use abbreviations, especially when we send seasonal forecasts, which cover three months. We hold face-to-face training in Makueni, Machakos and Kitui Counties in the south-eastern region to ensure end users understand the information they receive.’
Over 500 farmers have subscribed to CSA. The SMS service has indirectly reached more than 1,000 people who have not subscribed but receive the information by interacting with ‘climate ambassadors’. These volunteers are CSA subscribers who go and talk to community members that don’t have access to the SMS service because of limited funds or other reasons, in exchange for free farm inputs or seeds.
Elizabeth prioritises women in the selection of climate ambassadors. Even before joining the Tekeleza Prize, she worked a lot with farmers, which increased her awareness of the socioeconomic barriers women face. Illiteracy rates among them tend to be higher, which translates in many being unemployed and trapped in subsistence farming. But access to climate information could change that.
‘I wanted to inspire women so they could understand the importance of climate information as a social mobiliser too. Being a woman, I believe I can act as a role model and I have confidence in what our initiative helps them achieve’, says Elizabeth. ‘When you educate a woman, you create a bigger impact as they share experiences and learn from each other, they create a community of practice.’
The Tekeleza Prize impact
The competition led Elizabeth to focus more on the poor as the CSA main target, rather than the middle class, and to adopt a user-centred approach. Before developing the SMS platform, her team undertook preliminary research to understand what challenges farmers face, what information they need, and which formats they are able to access and understand. This influenced, among others, the decision to translate climate information into local dialects.
One of the most valuable benefits of participating in the competition, which was also a key motivator, was the opportunity to meet potential partners.
‘The competition really pushed me to go above and beyond, so much so that after being shortlisted I went to the office of KMD Assistant Director Ayub Shaka, I introduced myself as a Kenyan simple citizen and told him “I want to disseminate climate information – how can you help me? He took the personal initiative to train me so I could understand the scientific information KMD sends, how to decode it and what to prioritise when we disseminate it. That was a turning point. I feel like KMD now sees us as a credible partner.’
Towards greater sustainability
Over the last two years, Ukulima Tech has made profits and now employs four permanent members of staff. However, Elizabeth knows that if her model is to be sustainable in the long term, she needs to diversify her revenue streams to more than just subscription fees.
She has started selling climate-smart farm inputs to the CSA subscribers, including an affordable eco-friendly pest control system that uses pheromones to lure and trap insects and offers an alternative to chemical pesticides. She also uses advertisements in the CSA SMS to promote farm inputs sold by agricultural companies.
Improving farmers productivity is only a piece of the puzzle as they also need access to markets to sell their products. A holistic approach that provides this link is in the pipeline as is the plan to expand the scope of services from crop to fish and livestock production.
Moreover, Elizabeth plans to improve the hardware and software infrastructure underpinning CSA’s digital communication system.
‘Every time farmers tell us they haven’t received an SMS, we need to go back and understand why this has happened and why on our end the system says that the message was sent. We need a more stable and interactive communications system.’
Furthermore, Elizabeth intends to develop a voice service technology to ensure climate information reaches those who cannot read or write too, by calling users instead of texting them. She also aims to strengthen Ukulima Tech’s brand, expanding marketing channels from door-to-door promotion, public campaigns and rallies, to radio and print media, to reach a bigger market.
‘I would like to thank the Prize, we believe it will be a turning point for our initiative to impact more communities’, concludes an enthusiastic and determined Elizabeth.
When the Ideas to Impact team decided to run this competition, we selected Kenya because of its unique blend of entrepreneurship and innovation. Thanks to people like Elizabeth, we now know that we were right.