Increasing SME Capacity Through Information Technology
Taking a facilitative role within Senegal’s agri-food systems for rice, maize and millet, the Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay (“flourishing agriculture”) project initially started small when it came to information technology (IT).
At first, Naatal Mbay simply challenged the farmers in its partner networks to become more directly engaged in collecting, tracking and leveraging data to improve their commercial viability and increase market connections. Along the way, as the farmer groups became more proficient in data collection, their IT needs grew and, with them, so did their need for financial and IT services from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Trusting in the power of local talent and ownership, Naatal Mbay has engaged, empowered and strengthened digital Senegalese SMEs, many of which employ innovative and energetic youth, to carry the mantle forward. These partnerships with SMEs have yielded cost-effective and culturally appropriate solutions — they also employ young people from local communities, building a workforce for the future.
Emerging IT Firms
As farmers partnering with Naatal Mbay collected production and marketing data over the years, the project piloted and refined several iterations of data collection systems with the initial support of Dimagi, a US-based firm that builds an open-source mobile application called CommCare. With Naatal Mbay support, an adapted CommCare application called CommAgri is now used by 56 producer networks made up of 75,000 producers.
As more farmer organizations embraced the efficiencies of data collection using CommAgri, they began expressing new needs for different kinds of data and adjustments to basic programming features. Rather than returning to Dimagi for minor fixes, which could be costly and time consuming, Naatal Mbay facilitated a partnership between Dimagi and local firms. This collaboration would build local firms’ capacity to support CommAgri and other similar IT solutions critical to developing cereal markets in Senegal.
Four key SMEs have emerged over the past three years in conjunction with the CommAgri and integrated finance initiatives under Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay. The project builds SME capacity through a series of pilots that continually adapt and upgrade data capture and dissemination systems. By and large, the programmers in these enterprises are youth; like many countries in Africa, Senegal has proven to be a fertile ground for youth to support IT developments.
One of Naatal Mbay’s partner firms, STATINFO, has seven employees, including two IT experts. The Dakar-based SME has demonstrated its ability to support farmer groups in Senegal’s southern zone, ensuring that the farmers can resolve issues quickly and make modifications to improve operability, all while maintaining the integrity of the CommAgri system.
“The collaboration with [Feed the Future] has allowed us to gain more experience monitoring agricultural activities,” says Oumar Diop, STATINFO’s associate director. “We have established strong relationships with the producers and are exploring how to continue sustaining the gains that we have made together using this system. We are looking at partnering with the International Finance Corporation to expand the system [from staple crops] to the mango industry in Casamance.”
SIS’Tech, an IT firm in St. Louis, is providing a similar service to producer organizations using CommAgri in addition to another Naatal Mbay-supported intervention: a rice paddy inventory tracking system. The tracking system, a key innovation to providing access to finance for irrigated rice production and transformation, started as a partnership between SIS’TECH and Naatal Mbay. After seeing its value, the national agriculture bank, CNCAS, has committed to financing the system in the future. Together with local audit firm Kamex, which provides monitoring services to validate the quantities of rice in the system for the bank, this new third-party holding system is providing jobs for 170+ people, more than 50 of whom are youth.
Yet another Senegalese firm, Amandjine Consulting, is using a combination of Naatal Mbay-supported rain gauges and a popular SMS/USSD (text-messaging) platform to provide more than 4,000 farmers with updates on the previous day’s rainfall readings and up-to-date weather alerts in their area. Access to such information, which is not internet-dependent, helps farmers make more accurate decisions about when to plant their seeds – as well as when to apply critical fertilizer – for optimal growing. This new system, “Météo Mbay,” has also indirectly benefited more than 16,000 other producers. Convinced of the importance and potential of this program, Amandjine Consulting is developing a business model to scale up its Météo Mbay information service.
Key Lessons Learned
Over time, Naatal Mbay has shown that building SME capacity within a market systems framework provides a structure and greater potential for relationships with paying customers down the road. The project’s support was critical to developing a conceptual approach to local SME IT solutions, without distorting the market by becoming the primary client for these SMEs. Linking the SMEs to the business clients, such as the producer organizations and banks, provides a stronger foundation for a long-term market for the IT SME.
The project also found that engaging multiple IT providers in the process was critical to success. Including several local firms in IT design ensures competition among different approaches while also ensuring that localized challenges are addressed during systems design. For example, SIS’TECH is based in St. Louis, where the irrigated rice value chain is a major economic driver. As a local IT service provider, it is better suited to develop appropriate IT solutions within that environment.
Growing Demand for IT
Other market actors — such as banks and equipment-leasing firms — are also recognizing the value of the data generated through mobile technologies. For example, plot geo-referencing has become the norm for CNCAS, the Senegalese national agricultural bank, allowing for more precise information about the surface areas farmed by loan applicants. Taking advantage of this new opportunity, producer organizations are training young people in their communities to geo-reference plots.
These emerging players are likely just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to IT SMEs in Senegal — market signals point to a dynamic community of young professionals with considerable talent to conceptualize new systems that address logistical and management challenges and programming skills that can bring those concepts to life.