Portrait: Ignitia, the weather forecasting agritech startup supporting Ghanaian farmers

Ignitia is a science and technology company which recently developed Iska, a highly accurate tropical weather forecast model. To date, Iska benefits over 80,000 small-scale farmers in #Ghana primarily, by sending subscribers a daily weather forecast via SMS; in partnership with major telecommunication companies such as MTN. 

Based in Ghana, Elizabeth Merrill had been working for almost year and a half as Project Manager at Ignitia. From marketing to external relations, she took on a number of roles at the small, but growing science social enterprise. We were able to briefly catch-up with Ms. Merrill and learn more about Ignitia’s tropical weather forecast services and the company’s growth across the Gold Coast region.

What is the typical profile of farmers who use Ignitia?

Our customers are male and female small-scale West African farmers typically farming common regional crops such as cocoa, cassava, cotton, etc. They all have mobile phones but not every client has a smart phone. 2015 was our first full commercial year and we were only active in Ghana, which is where the majority of our customers are currently located. 2016 is the first time where we have launched on a large scale in new countries. We’ve established a partnership with Orange (French multinational telecommunications company) in Mali and are running several projects concurrently with various aid agencies in Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and potentially Côte d'Ivoire.

How do you market your product to farmers?

It is a work in progress. Right now we are sending out advertisements via SMS and local radio. We are working on sharing our product on popular radio farming programs as well. We also partner with NGOs and local government organisations already working with farmers, who can tell farmers about the product. Additionally, we place posters and flyers at agriculture centers and markets in the area. Understanding the best channels of communication to reach farmers in Ghana is a major challenge at the moment and we are working on it.

Compared to other tech innovations in weather forecasting, what is Ignitia’s competitive advantage?

We’re not a mobile application, which is our greatest advantage. Our weather forecasts are all delivered via SMS, which means our service can be used on any type mobile phone. Farmers can subscribe to our weather forecasts via short code, which is a common mobile subscription method in West Africa. Simply by dialing a short code into their phones, users can see our company’s subscription details. Once they subscribe, it taps into their existing mobile credit and they get a tropical weather forecast every morning, deducting only a small amount of their mobile credit. Since farmers already subscribe to other services using mobile credits, we didn’t have to teach them how to get and use our product, which is a huge benefit and not always the case for tech innovations.

Our SMS messages are delivered in plain English text format, which from our research on a test group of farmers in Northern Ghana, is the best way to get the messages across, since many farmers have very basic mobile handsets and cannot receive pictures or icons. We also learned that icons are interpreted differently across cultures, what one person perceives as a water droplet icon may be unclear to another.

Another factor that allowed us to expand quickly and provide a great service was our partnership with a major telecom company in Ghana. We were able to use their infrastructure instead of building our own.

When farmers sign up for a subscription, the telecom company can triangulate their GPS location, so we can deliver highly accurate tropical weather forecasts.

Do you have plans to expand in other emerging markets?

We will focus on West Africa in 2016. We will definitely be looking towards East Africa in the near future. In the long-term, we hope to expand to South America, South-East Asia, and India. India in particular looks like a really big market for us.

Our forecasting model is based on tropical weather patterns, so it’s applicable for all countries near equatorial areas, especially emerging markets. Since it is an automatic system, we only have to expand our geographical modelling. In most circumstances we expect to be able to expand our model for a new country in around two months. We’ve got the technical capacity to expand to new markets, it’s all down to building the capacity of our organization to effectively deliver the information.

Why should investors and venture capitalists invest in the agribusiness industry in emerging markets?

Agriculture is one of the largest sectors in emerging markets.. By 2050, we have to feed 9 billion people, so agriculture in these areas is going to be a massive market. Nigeria, for example, is predicted to become the third largest country in the world and an estimated 70 percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture. From a humanitarian standpoint, tech and agriculture have a unique cross-point: the ability to scale and make a large impact in development. Other forms of intervention, such as NGOs working on the ground, typically have higher operation costs and aren’t easily duplicable. When technology is used in agriculture, these innovations can efficiently expand with the market to solve global food challenges in the future. Whether you’re investing in these solutions from the social or market point of view, it’s an incredible opportunity.

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