Far from the buzzy centre of Bizdojo Wellington, in a far corner of the space, is a business of FinTech specialists quietly doing extraordinary things for the farmers of Malawi.
For two years, Avenir Technology has worked with African-based ACE Africa to ensure the maize farmers of the southeast African country are not cheated over the crops they grow, store and sell. It’s also helping them to get loans to buy essential equipment.
So how did such an unlikely arrangement develop?
During a 2007 road trip through East Africa from Cape Town to Cairo, a founder of Avenir, Stuart Turner, fell in love with the beauty of Africa and with its friendly and engaging people.
Seven years later Stuart returned to Africa where he was introduced to ACE’s CEO Kristian Schach Møller, and saw his operation first hand. ACE operates throughout Malawi and aims to reduce farmers reliance on sustenance farming by easing the marketing effort of their crops.
In ACE’s strategy for the year 2020, Kristian stated that “The economic and agricultural framework conditions in Malawi are challenging and limiting to the development of agricultural value chains. This threatens the livelihood of millions”.
Stuart was impressed by ACE and could immediately see how Avenir’s technology, which was still in development at that stage, could help the operation.
In 2016 Iain Walker was hired to take the lead on the Avenir/ACE partnership and was quickly in Skype contact every day with ACE’s information technology department.
“Up until recently, ACE were using Excel to try to keep track of receipts, loans and storage costs. We’ve been able to help by developing web applications that track receipts for farmers and helps with storage and maintenance of their crops. Our software also sends out market prices for goods, so farmers know exactly how much their stock is worth”.
Apart from developing software that aids the day to day handling of the stock, Iain is working on a loans module, which will be rolled out later this year. It will allow a farmer to receive a receipt for their maize which they can use to acquire a loan.
“Like any business,” says Iain, “costs arise throughout the year when things need to be fixed or replaced. By having their stock properly recorded and receipted, they’re able to organise a loan which can be paid back once their stock sells.”
Iain visited ACE for a month last spring.
“I fine-tuned some of the application’s features and trained up their IT guys. Previously the whole team had been working on an Excel spreadsheet and most of them weren’t aware of what they could now do, with the new software.
“Together, we've moved their operations from error-prone spreadsheeting to something much more robust”
Iain’s main focus for 2017 is extending the app to allow farmers actually trade, using their precious receipts as currency, and developing technology which will allow ACE to run auctions where big companies will come in and buy large quantities – 200 metric tonnes – of maize.
The project has grown to occupy most of Iain’s working day. “Still,” he says, we’re not making a lot of money out of it. It’s a feel-good project.”
He loved Malawi, but just one thing puts him off visiting again in a hurry.
“The only beer they have in the whole country is Carlsberg!”