Lessons learnt from building a tech startup in Africa

By Anita Woods

Anita Woods, VP of Product at Wefarm discusses vital lessons learnt form building a tech starup in the African region.

After studying economics at University, and spending two years at Bain & Company in San Francisco, I went on to do marketing at a fast moving consumer goods company, before realising that “fast moving” was not fast enough for me. So, I focused my career more on digital, where you could see changes lives in a matter of days, not months. 

After moving to the UK, I did stints at Amazon and Google in product and marketing, and then started moving to smaller companies, where I felt increasingly at home. I found myself working at a fintech start-up, then healthtech, and then I became VP of Product at Wefarm – a company that’s enabling smallholder farmers to connect with the people and resources they need to achieve their full economic potential. 

As we’ve built out the business to be the largest digital farmer to farmer network, here are the top lessons I’ve found useful along the way:

1. Understand your user; don’t blindly chase KPIs

I love metrics and data-driven decisions, but while focusing on optimising KPIs, it’s crucial to remember who you are building for, and what’s valuable to them. 

Often product teams are building products they also use themselves, and so it can be easy to fall into the trap of building what you want and losing sight of the end-user. Even when clear KPIs are in place, a lack of understanding of the end-user can lead to chasing goals in the wrong way. In one previous start-up I worked at, I was surprised to hear that we didn’t tell some users that a signature upon delivery was required. When I asked the reason for this, I was told it was because the conversion rate was higher if we didn’t mention the signature. While this may have been true in the short-run, it wasn’t in the long-run because of a dissatisfying post-purchase experience could have on repeat purchases. 

At Wefarm, we have a lot of data on what farmers are asking and doing, that could be valuable to a multitude of businesses, governments, and non-profits. For each potential revenue opportunity we have, we think about whether our farmers would be the ones to benefit from this, and if we are doing things that earn their trust. 

This really helps us to prioritise, and ultimately things that could increase revenue but without clear value to the farmer simply don’t make the cut. So, while it seems simple, the best lesson I have is spending time with the people you are building products for. Data without the underlying context of the people who sit behind it, is not that helpful. We have teams across the UK and East Africa, but we invest heavily in making sure everyone in the UK also has the space and time to be in Africa meeting with the farmers they are building value for. 


2. Tech start-ups must look beyond digital offering

As mentioned, at Wefarm we’re enabling farmers to connect with both the people and the resources they need. A big piece of the latter means providing farmers access to the best quality inputs, at the best price. We’ve recently launched our marketplace to help farmers, manufacturers and retailers come together and do just that. However, when you think of the word ‘marketplace’ in product, it can be easy to immediately conjure images of a purely digital and automated Amazon-style service where we could predict exactly what farmers need to buy, and then generate automated messages to tell them about these products at the times that matter most. Whilst we want to get there, it’s also important to look at how farmers are using channels today, and, ensure we’re prioritising getting value to them via the path of least resistance. 

After realising that most of our farmers like to view physical catalogues at their local agrovets containing all of the products we have available, we focused on automating the process for easily updating and printing new catalogues, and collaborated with our field teams to get them into the hands of our partner agrovets. More automation is still key to scaling our business, but for me, it was a useful sense check to realise that existing farmer behaviors are a combination of both digital and physical.

3. Communities don’t have borders

One of the things I remember from my first field visit in Kenya was hearing a farmer talk about why he responds to questions from other farmers that he has never met. He said he felt that it was his responsibility to help them because other people have helped him. The power of digital means that a sense of community and belonging is no longer based solely on physical proximity. My own personal experience of this has been with a Facebook group for parents of children with the same rare genetic condition that my daughter has. Within this community, there are people who play different roles, the information seekers, the advice givers, those looking for reassurance/validation, and of course, people can play different roles at different times. 

I’ve sometimes been asked how we can work towards providing “perfect” answers to questions on our service. But what I believe is even more powerful is giving farmers across the world the context to make their own informed decisions. Like in any community the power lies in being able to bring more trusted voices into the fold. I think a common mistake of startups is to believe that you as a business have all the answers, and it’s your job to tell people what to do. But for me the lesson I have learnt in helping build a tech-startup in Africa, is that many farmers already have the answers, and a desire to share them, and therefore the real opportunity that I see for us is to provide a place where those farmers can be part of a global community, and help empower them even more to make their own decisions.

For more information on business topics in the Middle East and Africa, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief MEA.

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