By George Munene
Johannesburg/ Lagos/Nairobi, 31 January 2023—Heifer International announced the 2022 winners of the AYuTe Africa Challenge that supports agritech innovators. These include Botwana-based Brastorne Enterprises, ThriveAgric of Nigeria, and Kenya’s DigiCow.
Brastorne Enterprises– Botswana
Co-founders of Brastorne Enterprises Stimela Martin Thato, CEO, and Naledi Magowe, CGO, who both grew up in farming families want to improve internet access across the continent with a commitment to connecting 760 million Africans who lack meaningful internet access—through their basic-feature phones.
Brastorne’s apps, such as mAgri, give farmers access to farming information, markets, and short-term finance using the capabilities of any feature phone, such as SMS and interactive voice technology. The Brastorne mobile service Mpotsa (“Ask me”) provides rural unconnected mobile users with localized information, and Vuka harnesses USSD technology to allow users on any phone to create profiles, add friends, create chat groups, and more. These technologies have helped farmers realize a 250 per cent increase in yields and achieve 85 per cent savings in communication and information access. The company also boasts 100 per cent youth employment.
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Brastorne has already connected more than 1.8 million people across Africa, who pay an average of US$1 per month for connectivity.
The company’s success in building its network and supporting farmers in accessing a range of financing options and information through mobile technology prompted its selection as a winner of the 2022 AYuTe Africa Challenge.
Despite the rapid rise of Africa’s digital economy, the digital divide is wider and deeper than many people appreciate. Across the wide expanse of rural lands, internet connectivity is the exception, not the rule. Today, 80 per cent of Africans cannot afford smartphones or data—which is 55 per cent more expensive in Africa than in Europe or North America—placing the benefits of digital access beyond reach for most of the population.
“Innovation is a constant in Africa,” says Thato. “But many have been innovating the wrong way, focusing on solutions that mirror what happens in data-hungry first-world countries. We as Africans need to develop solutions for African problems. Our app has done so well because it addresses a basic need: low-cost communications without data.”
Thato points out that it will be many years before Africa’s large rural areas are covered by digital infrastructure. In the meantime, Brastorne has figured out how to use mobile technology to provide equitable access to markets, information, and community using basic USSD technology and feature phones. The technology connects the user’s phone to the phone company network, which then creates a real-time connection that can be used for a two-way exchange of data. Based on USSD, Brastorne has developed three apps that are revolutionizing access to information for people in rural areas.
mAgri provides farmers with access to farming information, markets, and short-term finance. It allows farmers to market their products and services across the country, using any cell phone. Mpotsa (“Ask me”) is an SMS-based question/answer platform that aims to provide users with information on almost anything. It provides rural unconnected mobile users with relevant, timely, and localized information and even legal services. Vuka allows users of both low-end phones and smartphones to create profiles, add friends, create groups, chat, broadcast messages, and more. It’s like Facebook without the internet.
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“Until now, the digital gap between those with and without access to the internet inevitably has reinforced existing social inequities,” Magowe said. “It leaves people disconnected from tools, opportunities, and services. Our service seeks to close that gap and connect farmers and people across the community. We’re trying to level the playing field.”
Magowe explains that the services are geared toward the average person, not large-scale commercial farmers. Brastorne seeks to connect the people who want to feed and economically sustain their families through agriculture.
In partnership with telecommunications companies, Brastorne has reached over 1 million users in Botswana, with 350,000 monthly users. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has reached over 800,000 users since its countrywide launch in May 2021. Some 80 per cent of users are youth between the ages of 24 and 35, and 60 per cent are women. To date, farmers on Brastorne’s platforms have seen a 250 per cent increase in yields.
Expansion plans have sights set on Madagascar, Guinea, Conakry, and other countries as well.