Interview Martin Njeru
What is the story behind the creation of Cojengo?
Cojengo is a classic story of a university start-up. It has benefitted from an active entrepreneurial support infrastructure at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (Scotland) for graduates to start a business. The Strathclyde Entrepreneurial Network is a key partner in Cojengo and the university provides a pool of experts and talents on many different matters. It all started with Iain Collins, who is one of the founders of Cojengo, traveling to Kenya as a student. He did a research on ICT4Ag. After interviewing farmers, he found out that livestock diseases are a real threat for farmers. There are not enough VETs around to tackle all the problems in the field as an accurate diagnosis takes a lot of time from VETs. The idea was to develop an app on a smart phone that is easy to use and could diagnose accurately livestock illness while at the same time source appropriate assistance.
What can you tell about the app?
We offer Africa’s first integrated livestock disease diagnosis and disease surveillance platform with the ability to store data for compliance and monitoring. One of our tools is VetAfrica Mobile, an app for users in the field to assist with diagnosis, data collection and education. We further have developed VetAfrica Hub, an online data management dashboard to review, share and act upon live surveillance data, and VetAfrica Expert, a method allowing the addition of new diseases and species to the platform. The technology works on the latest Android Phone, Cloud Technology, Azure and Office 365 and is used by large organisations, individual farmers and veterinary professionals who use the tools to lower misdiagnosis, capture data from field faster and save lives of livestock.
Not many African farmers have a smart phone. Do you want to reach out to smallholder farmers?
Absolutely. We hope to convince them that the smart phone can be earned back easily by making use of the app. Farmers will see that they keep their livestock healthier and incomes will rise over time. To lose every year one cow is a lot of money too. That is why Cojengo wants to become the “killer app” for livestock farmers in Africa that makes the purchase of a smart phone an economical logic next step. The future is smart and once the farmer has bought a smart phone, he or she can use it for many other things – for example, education for the kids.
How did Cojengo move from an initial idea towards a start-up?
Every problem can be turned into a business opportunity. Filling in all livestock disease data and uploading it in a database in the cloud results in information that can be used for an accurate diagnosis. Now VETs fill in many forms manually, which is time consuming. After the initial idea, Cojengo first built a prototype from its Glasgow headquarter. Then we had to test it. Can the app diagnose a disease as accurate as a VET in the field? Through the university network we found a dedicated professor that was interested in independently testing the app. He ran an experiment in Ethiopia. One group of local VET students in their last year did livestock disease diagnosis in the field in a traditional way, while others used the app. With blood samples the real livestock diseases were tested. After bringing all the data together it showed that the software was indeed a very effective diagnosis tool.
What is the business model?
Making impact is the driving force behind the business. But we are not a charity or an NGO. We must earn money to deliver a sustainable future for our services. Due to the huge impact that our IT solution can have on the dairy and meat sectors we believe that governments and farmers are willing to pay a small fee for the services. Now 10% of livestock dies of diseases in Ethiopia and Kenya. Drought is one of the main causes, but the lack of veterinary support also contributes to the death toll. By making use of the app we believe that 3% of livestock could be saved, which brings money in the local economy. Now we are in the first phase of our marketing strategy. We are focusing solely on selling our services to local and county governments as we believe that this is more efficient than focusing in this stage on individual farmers.
How do you experience working in the African market?
To focus on Africa and marketing a technology there is difficult. It is complex and a lot of bureaucracy is involved. Trust is one of the most important aspects of success. We go to cattle markets to build trust over a longer period. This is time consuming as stakeholders from governments, VETs, and farmers must see what we do. Introducing an IT solution as we do is disruptive in a sense that it will change how things are used to work. Although there are no losers here, there is still resilience among some stakeholders to change the way VETs have to work. And I understand it. VETs remain responsible for the diagnosis. So, there is a challenge for authorities to allow the app within existing regulations.
Is it practical to have the headquarter in Glasgow?
Glasgow is the logical headquarter to develop the software and kick-start the business. All shareholder and investors are located close to Glasgow, like the government of Scotland. For testing we had to go to Ethiopia and Kenya and we have our marketing team based in Nairobi. We know that in the long term it would be more appropriate to move the headquarter to Nairobi, but as we are still developing and piloting all the aspects of the software it is still better to stay in Glasgow.
ICT4Ag is booming, but there is still a lack of productivity growth in agriculture in Africa. Do you believe too much impact is expected from ICTs?
I do not agree with that. IT is disruptive and that means it takes some time to be fully embraced by all actors. Most problems that you face in ICT4Ag are not technological, but political, cultural and commercial. Many decision-makers are still not aware about the opportunities and benefits of IT for communities. If they have not a comprehensive plan to stimulate such changes, its total impact on agriculture will remain small.
Where do you see Cojengo in the near future?
We focus now on governments, but farmers themselves should in the near future diagnose livestock with the app. The app could be extended with a service to prescribe medication remotely by VETs through mobile systems. And we are looking to expand in the future to Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
Martin Njeru is the Account Director for Cojengo in the East Africa region. Cojengo is a Glasgow based ICT start-up that offers an application and ICT platform for livestock farmers in East Africa. Njeru’s background is in biotechnology, but with a bias in livestock health and welfare. His passion is to see the empowerment of smallholder farmers with ICT related technologies. He aims in his work at Cojengo to improve the ICT skills of farmers through the Cojengo solution in this region, which would help them alleviate losses and achieve higher profits.