The Africa Open Innovation Challenge, Part 1

October 3, 2023

Our Motivation for Applying and Thoughts about the Project

As has been announced recently, our proposal for the Africa Open Innovation Challenge was selected for development by JICA. In our proposal, we aim to increase agricultural effectiveness through an online marketing platform designed around the Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment & Promotion (SHEP) Approach, a philosophy that brings market-oriented agricultural practices to farmers in developing countries. To ensure that the platform we develop is meaningful to all stakeholders, we are currently conducting in-depth interviews with local farmers, marketplace buyers, agricultural extension workers, and other prospective users in Tanzania. In addition to these interviews, we are working with JICA staff in Japan and Tanzania, TANSHEP experts, and local and national consultants to select interviewees, create the development flow, and build the MVP to be introduced during the interviews.

A Screenshot of Our TANSHEP Marketing Platform MVP “Anzia Sokoni” (Swahili for “Market First”)

Because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, we were concerned about our ability to conduct design research prior to the development. However, with the help of the many parties involved, we are gaining many key insights about local needs–essential for any effective platform. We have learned a lot throughout the process of conducting interviews, and we are confident that using design thinking to build projects for overseas markets will be effective in the future. After we complete the MVP and proof of concept based on the results of the interviews, we hope to continue this project, and will keep you updated on this blog as we go along.

Team Members Participating in the Project, Including All Interviews

At this point, I’d like to talk a little about the SHEP Project. The SHEP project is a market-oriented agricultural promotion project that emphasizes motivational theory to change small-scale farmers from a “make and sell” mindset to a “make to sell” mindset. This theory postulates that intrinsic motivations, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness, nurture small-scale farmers and bring about sustainable effects more than extrinsic motivations like monetary rewards. In developing a solution for farmers, buyers, and extension workers based on this theory, we asked ourselves how we can stimulate these intrinsic motivations within our intended users. We believe that design research is an indispensable process for clarifying this.

Image from JICA’s SHEP Website

In considering this background, it is appropriate to make the theme of this article, “Motivation”. Going forward, I would like to talk about the three coincidences that motivated me to apply for the Africa Open Innovation Challenge and my thoughts about the project.

1) An Encounter with a former Ghana-based Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer

I started my career in data startups at the Japan branch launch of the British financial data provider, Markit, which handles derivative market pricing data. My work here overlapped with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and a major shift in values towards fair market value information. Looking back, I believe this experience was very valuable, especially in gaining knowledge about the data business and startups. However, at the time, I was inexperienced and outside my field of expertise, and I often spent my days wondering what I was doing.

At this time, my colleague, who joined the company at the same time as me and who became a true confidant and comrade-in-arms, had just returned from Ghana, where she had spent two years as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV) with JICA, and was as green as I was. Although we had to work a lot of mandatory overtime work (unthinkable these days), she would tell me in her spare time about her experiences in Ghana, from the warmth of the local people to how the experience had made her become the person she is today. Hearing such stories gave me more strength than anything else at that time, and it made me think, “Someday, I will do that too!” Since that time, I started researching various ways to make it happen.

2) Challenges and Setbacks in African Microfinance

About a year after my co-worker left the company to pursue her next step, I looked at my own five-year path, the journey of working in a company that had grown from 0 to 1, and decided to move on myself. What to do next? At that time, I found a job ad for JOCV related to microfinance in Africa. I was then quite interested in Muhammad Yunus and his work at Grameen Bank, and I wondered if I could contribute something considering my experience in the finance industry. I thought to myself, “I can experience something new and grow like my former colleague!” Therefore, in between job hunting, I spent my time attending JOCV information sessions and gathering information.

In the end however, I gave up this dream without applying. At the last minute I was too timid, and I thought to myself, and probably still do, that with my current experience and knowledge, even if I were sent to the field, I would end up being complacent and useless in the end. I guess I was naive enough to think of JOCV as an excuse to escape reality. With such thinking, there was no way I could solve international problems or social issues.

3) Managing a Global Data Platform Company and Crossing Paths with a Former JICA-Iran Employee

After my work in finance, I served as the Japan country manager for a Swedish startup that created a survey panel marketplace, where I could experience 0 to 1 growth first hand as a manager. After 5 years however, I was ready to step out, and helped to start a company focused on developing a global survey data platform.

Within this role, I was busy making proposals to clients that combined our global research efforts with customer experience surveys or zero party data platforms. One day, I learned about the Africa Open Innovation Challenge sponsored by JICA. At that time, we had just officially launched Koeerü, and were developing products from scratch in collaboration with our development base in Vietnam. We were therefore convinced that we could make a proposal that could solve the existing problems this challenge was targeting, because we could develop from scratch a system that would optimize the effectiveness of data through streamlining its collection and sharing by smallholder farmers.

Coincidentally, I had another cross with fate. We were expanding our workforce, and one of the applicants was someone who had worked for JICA Iran for 10 years before moving to JICA’s headquarters in Japan. As someone with only startup experience, I felt it was important to have an employee who could understand the client’s needs, and more importantly, having someone with experience in JICA projects overseas would ensure that the project could be carried out effectively. The timing was perfect.

This was the first time to make a proposal like this, and the challenges are not few. The digital environment in Tanzania is quite different from Japan, and smallholding farmers in the country face issues such as poor internet, a lack of device ownership, and literacy challenges for both reading and writing. However, I felt that our business model and development structure, our past experiences as a team–including conducting market research in Tanzania in Swahili and developing solutions that take into account digital divides–and above all my various encounters with fate across my career, pushed me to believe that this was a now or never situation. I now had the motivation to apply for this project.

Considering the motivations of farmers, what triggers or mechanisms are necessary for a change of mindset? What would motivate them to go to the market, collect pricing information, share it with other farmers, and raise crops based on this information? Throughout our interview process, my goal was to understand the answers to these questions, and to determine what would motivate them so that we can develop an effective solution.

Some users may follow extrinsic motivations, such as collecting data even if they don’t want to, if they get paid. However, just by looking at my own career before winning this project, I can assure that actions taken on the basis of internal motivations result not just in short-term effects, but long-term effects. I am proud that through this project, we will co-create a system that uses SHEP methodology to intrinsically motivate smallholder farmers.

In my next article, I will discuss the difficulties we’ve faced in developing our TANSHEP marketing platform Anzia Sokoni, and specifically talk about our online in-depth interviews with farmers, buyers, and agriculture extension officers.

Introducing an Image of our MVP During an Online Interview
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