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“Africa Is Not a House”

A quick housekeeping note: We’ve been traveling, hence the blog neglect.

Now, onto the post…

A friend of ours has a saying he tells people. It’s a simple saying—a metaphor, really—and he deploys it whenever someone hears he’s from Africa—Nigeria, to be specific—and responds with some variant of the following: Oh, you must know so-and-so from [insert African nation here]. When our friend hears this, he likes to smile and explain to that person simply yet forcefully: “Africa is not a house.”

Put another way: “Africa is not a country.” And here’s the map to “prove” it. One of the more interesting things about the map: It shows how individual income levels evolved over time in various countries on the continent. Fascinating stuff.

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The most important ways of measuring the seismic cultural and economic shifts associated with the rapid spread of mobile technology in Africa are often incalculable. Even rogue economists and statisticians armed with adventurous research methods and fancy algorithms will have a difficult time quantifying, say, reduced stress levels of people completing a task in 10 minutes instead of 10 hours. So, when trying to impress upon skeptics the game-changing power of mobile technology on the continent, it often helps to let the numbers speak for themselves.

Enter M-PESA. One of our key mobile money partners, the Kenya-based company recently reported numbers so big even we had to do a double take. No further commentary is required. So, without further adieu, here are a few key stats from the 2011-2012 financial year:

43 percent increase in revenues

12,000 agents added for a total of 50,000 employees

15 million registered users

 For more details on M-PESA’s astonishing growth, visit here. And a hearty congrats from all of us at SlimTrader.

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First, some housekeeping: After a long layoff, we’re reconstituting the blog. And we couldn’t have selected a better time. We have many exciting developments to share with you. So, please, check back here weekly for updates.

Let’s pick up where we left off. The Notore pilot program received a lot of interest from our retailers, aka, Village Promoters (VPs). You’ll recall that they are the key links in the supply chain, because the VPs deal directly with the farmers teaching them about better farming methods and about using fertilizer to increase their crop yields. Based on the feedback we received from them, and in consultation with Notore, we settled on the framework for a more efficient method to deliver the fertilizer to farmers.

While we’re still working out the details and the implementation process, here’s the gist of the revamped approach. Notore will provide Village Promoters with a mobile phone equipped with a specially designed Java application. This application will allow VPs to use their mobile phone to record a farmer’s order. It’s an important development. Previously, the VPs would have to buy fertilizer from Notore’s distributors in advance, necessitating that the VPs not only have cash and ample storage space, but also maintain a storefront.

Since transportation from the rural areas, where most farmers live, is spotty at best, trade suffered. Farmers don’t want to make an arduous, resource-consuming journey to the VPs if it isn’t guaranteed the product will be there in the quantity needed. Another problem: because the VPs were disconnected from the farmers, they were forced into a passive rather than an active role.

But our solution solves all these problems. Now, the VPs visit the farmers in person and take the orders -all with their mobile phones and our Java application. Once Notore’s distributors deliver the fertilizer, the farmers simply pick it up. As noted, this is all still in the planning phase, but we hope to launch it soon.

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David Rowan, editor of Wired‘s UK version, takes a tour of Africa and is stunned by the rapid proliferation of technologies the West takes for granted but have only recently taken hold on the continent:

You need only to look at the map of huge broadband fibre-optic cables currently being laid on both east and west coasts, from Djibouti to Dakar, to understand how quickly and ambitiously an entire continent is being connected. It’s like being back in 1995 again, and realising there might just be a market for an online bookshop or auction website.

Don’t take my word for it: David Cameron is so keen to give British entrepreneurs a foothold that he recently took a delegation of CEOs to Nigeria and South Africa to highlight “one of the greatest economic opportunities on the planet”.

The trip - featuring the bosses of firms such as Barclays and the Royal Mint, Vodafone and Virgin Atlantic - was hailed by Downing Street as “an historic visit to a continent with a trillion-dollar economy and the potential, according to the IMF, to grow faster than Brazil over the next five years”.

Much of that growth will come from startups that bring the mobile internet to businesses and consumers who have until now been offline. That’s why Cameron’s team invited along the British founders of red-hot mobile-money business Monitise, a clever text-messaging system called Frontline SMS - and your own Digital Life columnist with his trusty notebook.

Rowan goes on to discuss the importance of e-commerce and the role our startup, SlimTrader, is playing in Africa’s economic development.

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The Economist cheers Africa’s economic surge:

AFRICA has made a phenomenal leap in the last decade. Its economy is growing faster than that of any other continent. Foreign investment is at an all-time high; Senegal has lower borrowing costs than Ireland. The idea of a black African billionaire—once outlandish except for kleptocratic dictators—is commonplace now. At the same time an expanding African middle class (similar in size to those in India and China) is sucking in consumer goods. Poverty, famine and disease are still a problem but less so than in the late 20th century, not least thanks to advances in combating HIV and malaria.

The anonymous blogger further highlights the increasingly important role technology is playing in the continent’s boom: “Africa has 400m mobile phone users—more than America. Such tools boost local economies, especially through mobile banking and the distribution of agricultural information.” As Matt Ridely argues, “pessimism about Africa is overdone and trade is transforming Africa for the better.” In other words: business is getting done on the continent—and lives are changing. We’re both excited and proud to be a part of it.

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Jamie Holmes of The Atlantic Monthly flags a staggering statistic: “Feature mobiles have spread into some of the most remote areas of the globe, with 48 million people now with cell phones but no electricity, and by next year, 1.7 billion with cell phones but no bank account, according to one estimate.”

He further notes the game-changing impact the proliferation of text message-enabled phones is having on the way business is done in the developing world:

Nokia’s “Ovi Life Tools” offer agricultural, educational, and health information via SMS in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and China. Txteagle, a business began by MIT’s Nathan Eagle, now uses SMS surveys to perform research into emerging markets, paying for completed surveys in mobile airtime. In time, the impact of such services on local economies could be tremendous.

With mobile money, the possibilities multiply. Are there services that help list and sell products via SMS? You bet. Pay taxes by SMS? Yup. Buy clean water at mobile-payment vending machines? Sure. How about having a crop insurance payout sent directly to mobiles based on automated rainfall measurements? That’s been done, too.

Last year, 4.16 billion users made SMS the most popular data channel in the world. An estimated 6.1 trillion texts were sent, up from 1.8 trillion in 2007. And while the proportion of customers using SMS for more than simple messaging is still small, in poor nations these services are already changing the nature of commerce, crime, reporting news, political participation, and governing.

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A retailer displays his mobile phone, after updating his inventory. It now shows he has 38 bags of Urea 1kg for 130NGN.

You already know how our system works for the individual farmer shopping for Notore’s fertilizers. But how do Notore’s accredited retailers update their available inventory in the system, so that the farmer can review it and make a purchase? What equipment does it require? A computer with an Internet connection? A scanner? A smart phone?

The answer: none of the above. All a retailer pre-approved by Notore  needs is access to the system and a mobile phone with the ability to send text messages; the process is, more or less, the same as it is for the farmer.

(Note: Only retailers pre-approved by Notore are allowed access to the backend to upload or update inventory.)

Once the retailer uploads his/her inventory of Notore products into the system via texting (SMS), there are two ways it’s updated. If a purchase is made via mobile phone using MoBiashara, then the inventory is automatically updated. But if a purchase is made in the retailer’s store, it must be manually updated by the retailer.

Here are the two easy steps for manually updating the inventory:

1) The retailer sends a message with the fertilizer’s product ID and the updated quantity and price, if needed.

2) A response is returned showing the updated quantities and pricing.

This simple process allows for real-time updating, which in turn allows farmers to have a full picture of exactly what Notore fertilizers the retailer has on offer, in what quantity, and at what cost. In other words, the mobile phone is the store.

Another benefit: Since everyone along the distribution chain is using the same SMS-based process, it creates an invaluable continuity between Notore, Notore’s accredited retailer, and the farmer. Because they’re all on the same page, there’s no mystery and, thus, no doubt. And when it comes to business, there’s no more valuable commodity than trust. We’re helping to create and facilitate trust and understanding with MoBiashara.

Our outreach personnel have been dispatched to teach retailers, distributors, and consumers (in the case of the Notore program, farmers) on how to use the system and walk them through the process, where and when necessary.

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As we expand, so does recognition about the good work SlimTrader is doing. Case in point: Our founder and CEO, Femi Akinde, was interviewed by another major U.S. media outlet. This time, he sat down with Forbes to discuss our “promising start-up.” The video below is well worth your time and attention.

In addition, CMO Betty Radier traveled from our Kenya office to the Northern Nigerian state of Taraba, where she and her staff are training Village Promoters (VPs) on our MoBiashara service. These seminars are part of a pilot program with our client and partner Notore-an “agro-allied and chemical company” dedicated to  “championing the African Green Revolution by supporting local food production.” Such an effort, of course, is what SlimTrader was founded to facilitate. Which is why Betty felt it was so important to personally attend the demonstrations, community outreach being a cornerstone of the SlimTrader mission.

MoBiashara allows the VPs and the farmers they represent to use their mobile phones to purchase much-needed products, such as fertilizer from Notore. As Forbes describes the service’s myriad applications:

A traveler in Lagos, Nigeria can enter the text shortcode for a bus ticket and get a reply with a schedule and prices. He texts back to book the time he wants and gets a reply back with the reference number he needs to pay for the ticket via his mobile wallet. Same goes for a farmer who wants to buy bags of fertilizer. Or a doctor who wants verified medicine for his clinic.

A former Microsoft Partner Services lead for Western, Eastern, and Central Africa, Betty has filed a detailed report on her experiences working with 17 village promoters from the following areas: Wukari, Ibi, Bali, Gassol, Lau, Takun, Ardo- Kola Zing, and Donga. We’ll be sharing details of her findings over the next several days. In the meantime, please enjoy this sampling of photos, complete with captions:

Village Promoters, along with MoBiashara and Notore staff members.

Betty shows the Village Promoters how to use our MoBiashara service.

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We’ve had a banner few weeks here at SlimTrader-a heady mixture of excitement, surprise, and profound appreciation. First,  our CEO, Femi Akinde, was selected as a 2011 TEDGlobal Fellow. It’s a major-and yes, humbling-honor for him to have been included among a wealth of first-rate minds at such a prestigious event. To say that he’s excited to bring the SlimTrader message of social progress through entrepreneurial innovation to TED is an understatement.

But although Femi will be flying solo to the Edinburgh, Scotland-based confab, he’s quick to point out that his selection serves as a testament to the overall effort of the entire SlimTrader team. So, congrats to all, and keep up the good work!

In other (very) good news: Venture Beat reporter Ciara Byrne profiled SlimTrader in the June 15th edition of the New York Times. She clearly and concisely laid out the problems our MoBiashara service addresses, as well as the growing importance of our partners in the mobile technology boom such as M-PESA, Aritel, and MTN. Money quote:

Simple transactions from filling a prescription to buying a bus ticket involve long journeys and long waits.” The most precious commodity for the BOP (Bottom of the pyramid) is time[,]” said Akinde. “If you want to purchase a transportation ticket, you’re looking at a day-long ordeal involving multiple trips to various institutions.” That’s a day on which no work can be done and money earned. Time really is money to the BOP.

Despite the recent exposure, we’re of course doing anything but resting on our laurels. Stay tuned here – or join us on Twitter or Facebook – for more news in the weeks and months ahead, including a recap of Femi’s experiences at, and thoughts on, SOCAP Europe.

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How do small-scale farmers connect with retail markets? What role do women play in agribusiness in Africa? What financing tools are available for SMEs?

These are some of the questions I’m looking forward to hearing answered during the 11th annual “Making Markets Matter” Executive Agribusiness Training Program, which will be held May 8-11 at the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West, South Africa. What I like about this event is that it offers more than a chance to network with colleagues and experts from various fields. It also focuses on developing durable and workable strategies within said network. That’s a recipe for long-term success in the rising-tides-lift-all-boats mold, which is what we’re all about here at SlimTrader.

Which leads me the topic I’ll be discussing during my presentation at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 10 in the Somerset Suite 1+2: how SMS can be used to purchase agricultural inputs. I want to talk about how SlimTrader is leading a movement that connects agribusinesses with local farmers using SMS. Our platform allows farmers to make purchases via our free, efficient, and reliable system. In this way, we create social capital by helping to provide farmers with the access to supplies they need-pesticides, fertilizers, seeds etc-while widening markets for suppliers.

That’s why I’m so excited to be speaking at the “Making Markets Matter” conference: Because the “best in business thinking” will be together under one roof, I think we’ll all be able to benefit from one another’s expertise, innovation, and enthusiasm. Hope to see you there.

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