GrainMate: local technological empowerment to improve global food security

17/03/2021, por Angel

GrainMate: local technological empowerment to improve global food security

Isaac Sesi

Founder and CEO at Sesi Technologies


We talk with Isaac Sesi, founder and CEO of Sesi Technologies, a Ghanaian company that develops affordable technologies to solve problems in the world’s food systems with a focus on Africa. Sesi is an entrepreneur, engineer and innovator passionate about leveraging technology to solve some of Africa’s most pressing problems. He was named one of the 50 most influential young Ghanaians of 2018 and MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35 along with the founders of Google and PayPal in 2019. He is also the co-founder of Nsesa Foundation, a STEM non-profit whose programes have impacted more than 3.000 students in Africa.

 

Hi Isaac, tell us how GrainMate was born and what is the philosophy behind it

GrainMate began as a research project during my time as a research engineer in the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering in Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. I was part of a team that was researching viable, affordable post-harvest loss mitigation technologies that could easily be manufactured locally and scaled for the benefit of smallholder farmers in Ghana and beyond.

After the initial scientific research had been completed, my team was tasked with replicating an initial prototype of a grain moisture meter that had been developed by Dr Paul Armstrong, an engineer at the US Department of Agriculture. The team I put together successfully redesigned the hardware and software of the device, assembling dozens of units and built an accompanying mobile app. We also found local craftspeople to make packaging and other parts that would normally have been sourced from China. Following the success of our work and my realization of the impact the adoption of the moisture meter could have for farmers, I set out to start a company to further develop, commercialize and scale the moisture meter, which I named GrainMate.

The philosophy behind GrainMate is to prove that simple and inexpensive technologies can have a huge impact in the lives of farmers and help improve global food security. Since 2018, this has been my full time commitment and so far we have reached over 1000 farmers and counting. We see GrainMate as a starting point in our mission to develop different affordable technologies for farmers and agribusinesses to help them reduce losses, increase income and maximize productivity.

 

”GrainMate is a starting point in our mission to develop affordable technologies for farmers and agribusinesses to help them reduce losses, increase income and maximize productivity”

 

You developed a strong passion for agriculture while growing up and set out on a personal mission to improve global food security. How did you start and how was the path of tech entrepreneurship in Africa?

The tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Africa is still very young and many components of the ecosystem are very underdeveloped. This means that anyone venturing into tech entrepreneurship in Africa will face significant challenges. Starting an agtech hardware startup in Ghana has been even more challenging because a hardware manufacturing industry is practically non-existent in Ghana and we are one of the pioneers of hardware manufacturing in Ghana.

Some of the challenges we have had to deal with include raising adequate funding, finding skilled engineers to work with, acquiring the right equipment, sourcing raw materials and trying to debunk the notion that locally made products are of poor quality. However, to us the mission to solve food challenges for the most vulnerable is greater than the challenges we currently face and the impact we are making so far, gives us the passion to persevere and remain resilient in spite of the challenges. The good news is the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Africa is growing fast and the number of opportunities available to entrepreneurs are increasing by the day.

 

Most local farmers you support with your tech solutions are smallholder farmers with limited digital literacy. How do you overcome this to reach them?

We factor the limited digital literacy in the design of our solutions. We design them to be simple enough to use without requiring a lot of training. Through our engagement with the farmers, we are getting constant feedback about our solutions and are factoring that feedback into the product development process. We also engage with other partners such as our Ministry of Agriculture extension services who help us navigate other language barriers. 

 

One of the Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve decent work and economic growth. What is the present and future of agriculture to offer new opportunities and to entrepreneurial youth in countries like Ghana?  

In Ghana and many other parts of Africa, agriculture has typically been seen as “dirty work” and unprofitable business reserved for old men and women in rural areas. However over the years, there have been a lot of campaigns for youth to go into agriculture. Governments are providing incentives such as tax breaks, training and financial support for youth who want to go into agriculture. The response has been positive as more youth are now venturing into agriculture and are providing employment to other youth in rural areas. Online crowdfarming platforms such as FarmCrowdy in Nigeria and Complete Farmer in Ghana are making it possible for youth to invest money into farming and reap good returns while supporting local farmers at the same time. Other companies such as Agrocenta and Farmerline in Ghana, which are both founded and led by youth, are providing a lot of value to farmers and employing many young people at the same time. With projected global demand for food increasing every year, I see a bright future and lots of opportunities for young people venturing into agriculture.

 

Do you have any examples of successful local farmers using your locally produced tech solutions?

Definitely. We have had a lot of success stories from grain farmers, poultry farmers and feed producers who are using the tech solutions we provide. Poultry farmers have been able to cut down on mortality rates of birds because they are able to use our solutions to ensure better quality feed. Grain farmers are able to store for longer and have reduced losses and increased income by up to 10%. We are excited to see many of the farmers we have trained begin to practice good post-harvest management practices, which will bring a further decrease in their losses.

 

“We are currently working on getting GrainMate to support crops such as cocoa, coffee and cashew. We are also currently building a platform that lets farmers easily sell their produce”

 

You won last year the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize, a pan-African competition for innovative, young entrepreneurs. What does that mean to you and your team? How can Africa drive the 4IR forward? 

Winning the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize was a huge validation for our whole team. It proved that we are solving an important problem that matters and in hard times, we are able to look back on this win and this keeps us motivated. Winning the $50,000 prize also provided us with a crucial financial lifeline to keep the company running while we work towards profitability.

Driving the fourth Industrial Revolution forward in Africa involves a collective effort of both governments and businesses. Governments need to work with telecommunication companies to improve internet infrastructure and increase internet penetration. This will unlock the rapid development and deployment of high tech solutions which require connectivity. Businesses should also think about how they can better leverage technology to offer more value to consumers on top of their current services.

 

Do you make your research in an open and collaborative way to develop your products?

Yes. We work with a lot of stakeholders during our research. We have worked with the World Food Programe, the Post Harvest Loss Innovation Lab and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture of the government of Ghana. We have even published academic papers from our research that are publicly available.

 

What are your next projects in mind to create impact? 

We are currently working on getting GrainMate to support other important crops such as cocoa, coffee and cashew. We are also currently building a platform that lets farmers easily sell their produce. We have plans to expand our scope of post-harvest management solutions to include affordable technologies to help farmers dry and store grains and other food products more efficiently. We also plan to develop hardware and software technologies for greenhouse farmers as well.

 

What is your opinion and predictions on How is everything going forward during and after the global crisis of COVID-19?  

Saying COVID-19 has been devastating for most businesses is like preaching to the choir. However I believe many businesses are beginning to look at how to take advantage of the other opportunities this pandemic will bring, especially how to leverage digital technologies to grow their businesses and how to remain afloat.

As a hardware company, we were hit hard by COVID-19. Firstly our manufacturing operations were disrupted as we couldn’t manufacture during the lockdown. Working from home also impacted the productivity of our hardware team.

Secondly, our supply chain was disrupted because we couldn’t import raw materials due to border closures.The prices for all other available shipping routes skyrocketed overnight.

However in spite of all of these challenges, we are realizing the new opportunities that the pandemic is bringing. More especially we are looking at new ways of leveraging technology to reach our farmers.

 

More information on Isaac Sesi and Sesi Technologies:

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