French mobile phone provider Orange has developed several support programmes for ICT start-ups in Africa and the Middle East. By providing the right, tailor made support facilities it aims to enable a home-grown e-agriculture sustainable growth model for innovative, young entrepreneurs.
Launched in 2011, the Orange for Development Programme (O4D) supports the development of innovative solutions to meet local needs and contribute to the creation of digital ecosystems to drive social progress and economic development in Africa and the Middle East. The programme’s three pillars are: developing infrastructure and connectivity, providing services tailored to needs, and supporting innovation in local ecosystems. Agriculture is one of the main areas of engagement together with healthcare, education, financial services, and women.
Better connectivity to farmers through a reliable infrastructure gives opportunities building tailor made support and services for farmers. Therefore, the O4D programme also invests in start-ups in e-agriculture, which take part in Orange’s various support channels (see box). One of the flagship activities is the Orange Social Venture Price. This prize awards three start-ups each year with €25,000, €15,000, and €10,000. Since 2011, twenty-two start-up enterprises have received not only prize-money, but also extensive support. All finalists and the “Entrepreneur Club’s choice” award winners will receive support to develop their products and services in a six-month private coaching programme that includes professional entrepreneurs, ICT experts, and NGO representatives. Only the first prize-winner will be awarded a registered patent.
The French mobile phone operator also supports entrepreneurship by sharing experiences and know-how by offering access to its exchange platforms and networks and by facilitating the creation of new ICT services through application programming interfaces (APIs). Furthermore, Orange opened incubators in Senegal, Mauritius, Niger, Mali, and Guinea. The idea for these incubation programmes is to design an inclusive space with horizontal governance that brings together the public sector, the private sector and civil society, to increase the success rate for start-ups.
Abdou Maman Kané from Niger is one of the prize-winners of the first edition of the Social Venture Prize with his enterprise Tele-Irrigation. He developed a technological process allowing farmers to remotely pilot the irrigation of their fields with a mobile phone (even with the simplest models), from any geographical location of a certain radius. This smart system allows farmers to save time and water.
Winning the Orange Prize in 2011 has had a decisive impact on the development of his enterprise. Kané acknowledges that the prize opened many closed doors as the prize gave his company credibility, in particular with banks. International experts also back his ICT solution. He has received an award at the Geneva International exhibition of inventions in 2012 and was then selected by the French-speaking Institute for Sustainable Development and represented at the World Water Forum in Marseille. With all the support he managed to improve the product and could increase his clientele to more than a hundred paying customers in Niger.
Another entrepreneur who received support, is Aboubacar Sidy Sonko from Senegal. He founded the virtual agricultural hub MLouma in 2012, which publishes real-time information on the price, location and availability of farm products. Farmers and buyers can receive updates via the internet, SMS notifications or a call centre to quickly find out where to buy their products at the best price. MLouma won the 2014 Orange Developer Challenge, integrating three APIs in the process: USSD, to make the platform available via feature phones; SMS, to notify users of prices; Billing, to charge users communication credits while they browse. Since winning the Challenge and integrating the APIs, MLouma’s user base has grown from 500 exclusively web-users to more than 100,000 mainly mobile phone users in 2016. The ambition now is to cover Senegal’s entire agricultural sector and make inroads into neighbouring countries.
‘Our major challenge at the start was to reach farmers who live in rural areas without access to the internet,’ says Sonko. The Challenge was our best opportunity to extend our services to the mobile market that could reach farmers more easily. Sonko appreciates most of all the technical support received from Orange Senegal in the implementation phase. ‘Our two strengths are the scalability of our service and the quality of our partnership with Orange and their network of APIs in Africa,’ he adds.
Challenges remain for winning enterprises
Sonko hopes that start-up support programmes also will focus on promoting solutions and training in the use of ICT in agriculture to end-users that are the producers, transporters and traders. ‘This would achieve a critical mass of users in agriculture for the good of all stakeholders. And it should open APIs to other young entrepreneurs in the field of ICT4Ag.’
Not all the prize-winners do have the same success story. Among the prize-winners many saw difficulties to which they had to adapt, or that occasionally became too big to be solved, which was for example the case of Kachile in Ivory Coast. This company was one of the prize-winners of the 2011 edition, but because of the crisis in the country and an immature market, it could not survive. Or take the Agasha Business Network, created by Sharon Againe, a 2011 prize-winner, who designed a web marketing agency that promotes and connects African SMEs in agriculture who are having difficulties in accessing the global market. Technical problems prevented the web-based platform from being created. Now the concept continues in the AgaSha Group, the publisher of Agribusiness Directory East Africa that consists of linking agribusinesses, experts, professionals and supporting sectors in agriculture. It also facilitates Whatsapp Agribusiness Information Platform groups with over 1,500 participants sharing opportunities, experiences and challenges in real time with experts and practitioners.
Both successes and failures determine the future of O4D’s entrepreneurship programme by providing the right, tailor made support facilities, which enable an e-agriculture sustainable growth model for enterprises.