In Conversation with Lizzie Merrill, Project Manager at Ignitia
Last week, we introduced you to Ignitia, 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 has been working for almost year and a half as Project Manager at Ignitia. From marketing to external relations, she takes 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 who grow popular crops such as cocoa, cassava, cotton, etc. They all have mobile phones but not every client has a smartphone. Last year was our first full commercial year and we were only active in Ghana, which is where the majority of our customers are currently located. This year is the first time we’ve launched on a large scale in new countries. We have already established a partnership with Orange (French multinational telecommunications corporation) 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 talk about our product on popular radio farming programmes. We also partner with NGOs and local government organisations already working with farmers, who can tell them 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 emerging markets 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 strength. Our weather forecasts are all delivered via SMS, which means our service can be used on any type of 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, our system taps into their existing mobile credit and they get a tropical weather forecast every morning, deducting only a small amount of their credit. Since farmers already subscribe to other services using mobile credits, we did not have to teach them how to 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 images 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 that we can deliver highly accurate tropical weather forecasts.
How have your tropical weather forecast service changed based on customer feedback?
We have learned that our customers understand forecast terminology, such as the term ‘probability’, and what we mean when we say ‘high chance’ versus ‘rain likely’, more than they understand percentages, like 80% likely; but they still sometimes need a small explanation on how to interpret ‘likelihood’ depending on their familiarity with weather forecasts.
We are also working on sending out our SMS messages earlier in the morning. We usually send them at around 7 or 8 AM, but farmers would like to receive them at 6 AM. Unfortunately, it is not possible at the moment. All the satellite data gets downloaded and processed overnight and the forecasts aren’t produced until 6 AM. Then we have our trained meteorologists review the information and make small modifications. Finally, at 7AM we start sending out the weather forecasts. Although it’s not possible at the moment to send them earlier, we are trying our best to improve this.
Do you have plans to expand in other emerging markets?
We will focus on West Africa this year. Though we will definitely be looking towards East Africa in the near future. In the long run, we hope to expand to South America, South-East Asia, and India. India in particular looks like a potentially large market for us. Our forecasting model is based on tropical weather patterns, so it is applicable to all countries near the equator, especially emerging markets. Since it is an automatic system, scaling will only require us to expand our geographical modelling. In most circumstances we expect to be able to expand our model to a new country in about two months. We currently have the technical capacity to expand to new markets, it is all down to building the capacity of our organisation to effectively deliver the information to our customers in a timely fashion.
One of the greatest challenges that small businesses face is to secure enough funding to develop beyond a bootstrapping stage. What can other small businesses learn from your own experience?
We’ve just tipped the scale beyond bootstrapping. We’ve received several grants, including a three-year Securing Water for Food (USAID) grant. We are also closing a round of funding, which will secure our expansion in West Africa. Of course, having a good business model and innovative technology is important, but as a small organisation, your team and the people behind your product are key factors to attract investment. For us, people were investing in our founder, Liisa Petrykowska and the company’s story. It’s about making people (1) believe in you and (2) understand why your work is better than anyone else. Before you have a product to sell or a proven business model, investors have to believe in the story behind the business.
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 will have to feed 9 billion people. Nigeria, for example, is predicted to become the third largest country in the world and an estimated 70 percent of its workforce is today 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 replicable. When technology is used in agriculture, these innovations can efficiently expand with the market to solve global food challenges. Whether you are investing in these solutions from a social or market point of view, it is an incredible opportunity.