A timely solution

An award-winning app streamlines agricultural supply chains in Kenya

Chris Sang

A Kenyan company, Virtual City, specialises in developing mobile applications for e-commerce and has created many apps to increase the efficiency of market supply chains.

It can be a complicated process to bring goods from remote farms to urban markets. There are often many people involved who have to arrange times for collection and delivery, organise transport and negotiate prices. With so many transactions taking place, it can be difficult to keep the system efficient and transparent. There are many wasted trips and farmers often do not know if they are getting the best price.

Several of the developers at Virtual City, a technology company in Nairobi, Kenya, had encountered these problems at some point in their working lives. Their experiences led them to develop more than a dozen mobile apps to improve many of these issues, and make the supply chain more efficient.

One example is an app called AgriManagr. It was designed for field agents who buy directly from farms. With the app installed on a handheld device, a PDA for example, an agent can record the types of produce the farmer has for sale, the exact weights, and make a note of any payments due. To reduce manual entry errors, the agent uses an electronic scale which uses Bluetooth to send the exact weight of the goods to the app. The agent carries a portable printer to provide the farmers with a receipt. AgriManagr can also produce customised reports to give farmers an accurate, printed record of their transactions, which they can use for trading, requesting credit and tracking productivity.

If there is a network connection, the app sends all the data back to the agent’s main office through a secure virtual private network (VPN). As the data is collected, the office can update the warehouses, transporters and buyers with details of where to collect the produce and how much to expect. Each person or business connected to the supply chain, therefore, has a much clearer idea of what goods are available, in what quantities, and their exact location.

Competitive edge

Virtual City recognises that every link in the supply chain serves its own unique purpose, and that each has slightly different needs when it comes to streamlining their part of the process. The company has developed the Routr and Haulr apps for transporters, the Auditr app to collect market data, and the Membr app to record customer account details.

But it is their Mobile Distributor Solution that has received a lot of attention recently, after winning the company US$1 million in Nokia’s Growth Economy Venture Challenge. The app is designed to work with relatively low-cost (around US$50), Java-enabled phones, and allows businesses – from small-scale farmers to large companies – to automate their ordering, sales and delivery processes.

The app can store a company’s catalogue, with details of the types of products for sale and the sizes and amounts available. When sales staff travel to their customers they can place an order directly with their main office as the app sends data to the company’s computer system via the cell phone network. The warehouse can then prepare the order and organise delivery.

Previously, sales staff would have to return to the office at the end of the day to place the order. It could then take a long time before the goods were delivered, as the data would first have to be entered into a computer manually before being processed by the delivery team. In many cases, the sales staff made a second trip to the buyer to deliver the goods. Now, when using the app, the sellers can move on to the next customer and focus on making sales. The app also accepts payments through mobile banking schemes, which means that sales staff no longer have to carry large sums of cash.

Sales staff like this safer method of collecting money, but they also enjoy the fact that each sale is recorded instantly and accurately, since this leads to more precise commission payments. Businesses using the app have increased their revenue as sales staff can visit more customers, and transactions are processed more quickly.

Virtual City continues to refine its products to meet their customers’ requirements, while the Nokia prize will help them find new markets and develop more apps to help businesses, farmers and other small-scale entrepreneurs. The company believes it is crucial for farmers and others in consumer goods industries to improve their supply chain process, since getting the goods to market as quickly as possible gives a distinct competitive advantage.

Being able to accurately trace and account for the goods as they travel from the farm to the market is becoming a legal requirement in many countries, and essential to achieve certification in new, premium markets, such as those for fair trade and organic produce. Mobile apps are an easy and efficient way to address all these issues using cell phone technology, which is accessible and familiar to so many people.


Chris Sang is the chief operations officer at Virtual City ( www.virtualcity.co.ke)


16 December 2010

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