- Fertilizer by PhoneEsoko Enhances African Farmers’ Livelihoods through Innovations in Data Access
Innovations Case Narrative: Esoko
An impossibly large demographic—some 600 million people,1 or more than half of Africa’s population2—relies on agriculture for its livelihood. Recently, rising food prices, increasing meat consumption, a growing global population, and climate change are all factors that have created unprecedented pressure on the global food supply and thrust agriculture back to the top of the Global Agenda. Despite years of effort and renewed focus, the agricultural sector remains one of the most dysfunctional on the continent.
I am not an agronomist. I studied social anthropology, and my career has been built around the design and application of information products and services. I am currently the CEO of Esoko, a mobile information service and communications company that I founded in 2006 under the name TradeNet. At Esoko, we are navigating the convergence of mobile data services with Africa’s enormous and inefficient agricultural sector.
My simple conviction—and the belief that has driven me over the years—is that 99 percent of what makes any business successful is having a competitive advantage in information. Africa’s agricultural sector is no different. People involved in agriculture understand how to grow things, but they also need certain information to access markets and guarantee incomes: Who wants to buy our products? At what price? Are buyers trustworthy? These are the risk constraints in agriculture. I believe that if basic market intelligence were readily available on who is buying, what their reputation is, and where they are located, there would be a transformation in African agriculture—one that would pull people out of poverty through opportunity rather than push them out through sympathy. [End Page 27]
The astronomical growth of mobile communications across the continent has made that sort of information more accessible than ever before. Suddenly, rural Africans have a pocket-sized device that can store and retrieve data that is critical to their livelihoods. Imagine the leap for a person who has barely any information —and probably no evidence—to real-time customized information on a personal handset and you’ll begin to grasp the source of our excitement—as well as our challenges!
I view gaining access to data via mobile in Africa as the final frontier of the Internet revolution that started in the 1990s. The availability of cheap information services has caused a global transformation between individuals and companies over the last decade. Products from eBay to Amazon, Twitter to Facebook haven’t created anything inherently new, but they have provided links that enable people to share information more easily. The information revolution in Africa’s agricultural sector may involve less sexy content than its predecessors—not everyone can get excited about the variety of seeds or the price of maize—but the potential impact is phenomenal. Although Africa has 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land,3 it produces only 6 percent of the global food supply.4 Mobile communication offers one of the keys to unlock this potential, a challenge Esoko has been struggling with for more than five years.
In 1995, I was fortunate enough to start a dotcom in New York. Metrobeat was later sold and subsequently went public. After that, two friends and I started a match-making business in London for Internet startups, which was also sold. By 2001, I felt I had been lucky and wanted to give something back. I decided to spend 30 percent of my wealth doing something I cared about—a kind of self-imposed wealth tax—and later that year I moved to Accra, Ghana, to set up a technology incubator. After a few demanding and exciting years, that incubator and technology center, BusyInternet, had made its mark. I had an outstanding manager and team to run operations, and I wasn’t needed any more. I began to think about attempting something new, a disruptive, transformative innovation, and started talking to people.
In May 2004, I asked a friend who ran the agri-business NGO Technoserve if I could talk to his team. I remember saying to them as...