The EYE Africa Conference Series: The Role of ICT in Agriculture by Lilian Uwintwali

The EYE Africa Conference Series is an online conference on Agriculture, organised by Emerging Young Entrepreneur Initiative (EYE Africa). The event held on the 30th of November on Whats App was the 2nd in the series; it was led by two distinguished individuals among the youngest and biggest entrepreneurs in Agritech in Africa; Lilian Uwintwali from Rwanda and Nasir Yammama from Nigeria.

Lilian, who discussed ‘The Role of ICT in Agriculture’, is a computer Engineer, Business Analyst, and the founder of M-AHWIII Ltd, while in her 3rd year at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology; by 25, she co-founded and headed two companies. Her online and mobile-based Agricultural Platform M-lima. formerly known as agro-FIBA platform connects small-holder farmers with key stakeholders in agriculture, to ensure that the average small-holder farmer benefits from essential services needed and leverage on arising opportunities. Lilian is a 40 Chances Fellow for Rwanda for year 2014, winner of the MIT-AITI competition 2011, a presidential/ Broadband/ITU people’s choice award recipient for best app in Broadband/ITU, 2011, and winner of the Mobile Apps for Human Development challenge 2014.

In May 2016, she was voted as the Vice Chair of Rwanda Youths in Agribusiness Forum (RYAF) and recognised regionally among the top 3 Young Innovators in Agribusiness across East Africa and Ethiopia by the Inter-Regional Economic Network (IREN), sponsored by the East African Trade Investment Hub/USAID and Syngenta.

Lilian who was so excited about the conference, started by acknowledging EYE Africa’s Conference on WhatsApp as a good example of the use of ICT in Agriculture to share and exchange knowledge and experiences. She went ahead to emphasise the importance of ICT in today’s world and described ICT in the simplest way. Furthermore, she shared her experience on the quest to improve agriculture, as well as the lives of rural farmers using ICT by giving over 10,000 farmers in Rwanda access to good market prices, deals and bank loans, a platform to learn about insurances services and trade their digitised stock on their mobile phones; there was a lot to take-home from the discussion with her. Below is a compilation of her chats in the conference.

ICT in today’s society

“Now to begin with, I can’t help but imagine what our world would be like without ICT today. Just imagine how our communication would be disrupted, the devastating effect it would have on our businesses; how our education system would come crumbling down. I wouldn’t want to imagine our economy in such a state, how would banks operate, How would we trade? How would we connect? When you think of the scenario above, then you can’t help but wonder what the world would be like with no ICTs; and if today Life can run normally without ICT.”

ICT: the way information is communicated or exchanged using technology

“Let me break down my understanding of ICT from my own school of thought: ICT – stands for Information Communication Technologies (as we all know it). If I would have to break it down for a layman to understand or an ordinary person who didn’t take an ICT course in school, I would say it is the way information is communicated or exchanged using technology.”

Information defines our way of life today

“Our planet has experienced different eras at different times which define the lifestyle or way of life in their time. We have had Stone Age, industrial age, but presentably we are in the information age. Information defines our way of life today, and for this reason ICT is an essential part of our lives because it defines the way we live, the way we relate to one another, the way we communicate, the way we study, the way we trade, it affects us in every way.  And I will just narrow down my focus to how ICT affects the way we eat.”

From farm to fork

“When we talk of agriculture, I always want to narrow it down to food – from Farm to Fork. I know it involves a lot more than food, but our major concern today is food security because without it we perish. And as youths, we are called to practise agriculture because our future is at stake and that of the next generation if we leave it to the older generation. But guess what, we have the advantage of doing agriculture better because we have the access to ICT and we leverage on this resource to do so much. Let me share my experience to elaborate on this point.”

Her experience in ICT

“My background is in Computer engineering and Information Technology. When I completed my bachelors, I chose to do my dissertation in agriculture. It was way back in 2012 and I was curious to see if ICT could intervene in the agriculture sector. I visited farmers and asked them if they know of ICT and if they use it in what they do. But as you may guess, all they had was a mobile phone in their hands and they told me “this is the only tool we have as technology and we use it to call and text and nothing more. Yes, Rural farmers indeed. It was out of curiosity and I was surprised by the findings I got. There are so many gaps in securing seeds and fertilisers, in securing markets for their produce, in greetings financing for their activities. So many gaps and I wondered how this people manage to do what they do and I understood why they remain so poor when they are so hardworking. They are simply disconnected from the digital world and still do it the traditional way which just doesn’t work.”

“I went back and thought hard how this tool in a farmer’s hand can be used for more than just calls, but used for farming business. After this I and my team went back to the lab and designed a platform that would help farmers to access information through their mobile phones; and currently, over 10,000 farmers in Rwanda are accessing market prices, learning insurances services, having access to bank loans, trading their digitised stock on their mobile phones and making good deals with the mobile phones they previously used just for calling. This is just few of the many examples where ICT is transforming the agriculture sector.”

A call to the youths

“One of the youths in my forum has come up with an automated irrigation system for farmers that use mobile phones. I know there are so many exciting ICT innovations popping up each day, helping farmers and other stakeholders to do work better and efficiently using ICTs and some of you have come up with one or two. And my challenge to you tonight is to urge you to seek out the essence of the problems facing your society today in whatever sector you’re in, and come up with innovative solutions and models to those problems.”

“It’s impossible until you try it and you may not know the impact it may have on society until you reach out. It doesn’t need to begin with a big group, you just need a small group to test and approve it before you scale it up. Remember when Facebook was done, it began as a classroom app and now, it has grown global within a decade. Never underestimate your potential and never be among the people who complain over a problem, because most opportunities come disguised as problems, but it is only an entrepreneurial and innovative mind that seizes it when everyone else is busy complaining.”

“Agriculture is loaded with enormous opportunities for ICT engagement in production, processing, marketing and other services, and you just need to have a dialogue with people involved in these areas; they’ll let you know which problems they struggle with and this may turn out to be your next business opportunity. You just need to serve your first client right and the rest will come along.”

“So allow me to conclude this session by thanking you all for being so attentive and give you room for questions.”

Answers to questions from conference participants

Application of GIS and Remote Sensing: “We are considering it [GIS and Remote Sensing] and it is indeed very helpful but affordability of some of these technologies remain a challenge for small holder farmers, so we constantly look out for key partners we may engage to provide access to these technologies.”

Challenges of illiteracy among farmers: “We have a similar problem [illiteracy] here in Rwanda as well. Most farmers were not privileged to have formal education; fortunately, most farmers here exist in groups called cooperatives, so we choose a smart farmer who serves as a facilitator of other farmers to access services offered by our platform. We also use USSD technology to ease access and minimise typing for farmers who are not conversant with it.”