In October last year, Lillian Uwintwali, the founder and chief executive of M-Ahwii, a Kigali-based software development firm, received the fellowship and award dubbed “40 Chances” after presenting a proposal addressing issues of hunger, conflict or poverty in Africa.
She walked home with $150,000 (about Rwf105 million), a prize money jointly awarded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), and the World Food Prize Foundation to develop an innovative, market-based approach to addressing food security.
She spoke to Women Today’s Sharon Kantengwa about the platform and its significance for farmers in Rwanda.
Tell us about yourself
I was born 26 years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo but I grew up in South Africa. I am the third born out of five children and had my early education in South Africa before I came back to Rwanda in 2003 when I was in Senior Three. I graduated in 2012 from University of Rwanda, College of Science and Technology (former KIST), with a degree in Computer Engineering.
Tell us about your organisation.
It’s called M-Ahwii. M stands for mobile while Ahwii is an expression of relief when you are tired. We named it that way when we were looking at the mobile phone being used to help people in terms of services. It was founded in 2011 at the time when we (all the company members) were still in school in our third year. It wasn’t easy at that time as we were still studying so we started full time operations in 2013 after graduating. We have developed software for different organisations like the energy sector, the health sector and the education sector. We had all these applications in place developing for the institutions but then we wanted something more sustainable like Facebook and WhatsApp. They are a sustainable platform because people see how beneficial they can be.
How did you come up with the agricultural platform?
We started developing the Agro-Fiba platform in 2013 by engaging with different stakeholders, and with the farmers. The platform came out as an idea from one of our staff. It was an idea of what he defended in high school in his final year. He found it so interesting because from time to time, he talked to the farmers and discovered their challenges and that is when he introduced it to us in the M-Ahwii organisation. Up to date, M-Ahwii is focusing and will keep focusing on this agricultural platform for the next two to three years.
How does it operate and how do farmers benefit?
This platform is a home for farmers in the sense that it gathers all farmer cooperatives in one place and connects them with markets, financial institutions and different organisations that support farmers. On the platform, farmers are able to get information that is useful to help them improve their business activities. It gives them a chance to communicate what is available for the market so that different agro business people who are interested in buying their produce will know the quantity of the commodity that is available in a certain place. It links the demand and supply chain.
Another thing that is specific about this platform is that farmers have access to information, where they can know about the opportunities that are available to them such as grants or loans that banks offer. If the farmers have access to that information then they have access to finance from the loan opportunities from the banks, which helps them purchase their inputs such as seeds or fertilisers.
Furthermore, the platform is a solution to farmers who have been isolated because they could not find access to information which could benefit them. Some farmers face challenges because they don’t know the different organisations that can support them, especially those that operate in Kigali. Once these organisations are on the platform, the farmers on the platform can easily learn what these organisations do, and how they support them.
Some cooperatives are not fortunate enough to have agronomists teach them how to address the challenge of pests and diseases and eventually, they incur losses at harvest time. Our platform provides extension services which are provided by the different agronomist experts who are on this platform from Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) and other cooperatives on the platform, because whatever information they put there, will be useful for the organisation and will help these cooperatives. Our role is just to make that channel smooth and possible by connecting all these stake holders together to find value.
It is typically very relevant, in the sense that the economy of Rwanda, just like any other African country, is heavily dependent on agriculture. Even processing depends on resources from these farmers, because industries, markets and exports heavily depend on them. The people most prone to poverty are the farmers, and yet these are the people whom the economy depends on. If you need to grow the economy you need to start from the grass root level. If these people are supported then the value chain is sustainable, and different key players have a sense of reliability because the farmer has been taken care of. If there is any loss on their end, you won’t find the quality that you need at the market, and if you don’t encourage them to sell to bigger markets, they will just remain subsistence farmers. So it’s up to the organisations and other several key players to really encourage the farmer because the country depends on them. We want to ensure that all these stake holders are communicating in a way that can boost the farmer.
What has your platform achieved so far?
So far we have five cooperatives subscribed on the platform and we have met several markets and organisations who are buying into it. We also have about 3000 farmers who have already been trained on this platform, particularly on the mobile version. We still want more organisations to adopt it because the more organisations are on the platform, the more beneficial it becomes to the farmer. It’s about what is on the platform and what they are providing for the farmers.
And the challenges?
We’ve had quite a number of challenges, especially on how to generate revenue from this platform with the project we are putting in place. We are currently heavily dependent on the grant that we got from the World Food Prize but we don’t want to be dependent on grants; we want it to be self sustainable. On one hand, you have to deal with the mindsets of farmers, because it’s hard to convince them to pay for a service (unless they really see it work) for them and take them to another level. On the other hand, most organisations fear trying out something new. We are hopeful that solutions are coming up slowly and people are getting more interested and very active in this.
What is the platform’s future like?
We are looking at this platform having its full effect and being the largest data centre for agriculture information in Rwanda and we are looking at that success being exported to other countries as well. Not just in East Africa but also other parts of Africa because if you realise, countries in Africa share similar challenges, especially when it comes to agriculture. So we see this not only being useful in Rwanda but also other African countries. There are countries like Malawi, Mozambique and Burkina Faso which have generated interest in these services. We can help extend these services to these countries instead of letting them start from scratch. We are looking at a realistic approach on how we can connect extension services or market information along the value chain in agriculture.
What is your philosophy for life?
It’s all about passion, resilience and the vision you have for life. If you combine all that, nothing can defeat you. If you know what you want, you have to be passionate about it, be resilient, patient, determined and push through so long as you know where you want to get it.
Any advice to young girls who would want to step in your shoes?
I would just impart my philosophy to them. Let them go for what they envision themselves to be. They shouldn’t stop at anything until they get there. There may be many challenges along the way and setbacks but they will only deter people who are not serious. They are only there to question your seriousness and determination so when they rise to question you and you know where you are going, you will always rise above them.