Doreen Irungu has international work experience – added to a childhood experience – that formed part of her motivation before founding the Agritech platform, Ustawi Afrika – a startup that works to help rural women farmers.
The 2021 Laurette for Women in Africa and Stop Hunger Award Winner spoke with us at Technext, where she shared her childhood experience in rural Kenya and why she decided to create a solution that enables families, especially women farmers in rural areas have the training, technological equipment, access to funding and a market for their products.
Growing up in rural Kenya didn’t stop Irungu from aspiring for the best education possible. She holds a Higher Diploma in Women Leadership from the European Business University in Economics from the Regent Business School, South Africa.
Before founding her startup, Irungu had over 15 years working with the community cutting across women empowerment and gender inclusion which includes enabling rural women to become (PEST) empowered i.e politically, economically, socially, and technologically.
Irungu mentions that after gaining significant experience in community and social work, she decided to use her experience and background in agriculture to develop a solution to the challenges she has seen people face in the course of her work and her childhood.
In 2018, I switched from community social work to develop solutions that can help women in the agricultural sector, my focus has been on enabling rural women to mitigate major threats and challenges they face when it comes to climate change and also converting them from labourers to commercial farmers by introducing a solution to matters that are affecting them.
Irungu was intentional about creating a solution specifically geared at training and empowering rural farmers in Kenya.
“My mother was a rural farmer and growing up I would see her and other rural women work as labourers on the farm mostly because in Kenya women didn’t own land, men did. And since these women didn’t own land or have much else, it was impossible for the banks and other financial institutions to even consider them for a loan because they weren’t able to provide the required collateral which in rural areas is mostly land.
“This cycle kept the women impoverished and unable to be financially empowered. This is the problem that Ustawi Africa seeks to tackle, and every time we provide these agricultural solutions for the rural women I feel satisfied because they all look like my own mother,” Irungu said.
The Ustawi solution
Ustawi provides women with access to financial links for loans, links to markets and buyers for their produce, and access to modern technological smart farming equipment.
Speaking about financial linkages for these farmers, Irungu says that they employ an indirect and collaborative approach in making funding available as they do not have the capacity for effective loan recovery like financial institutions do.
We do not give these women or clusters money, rather what we do is to work with micro-finance banks in the areas where these people live and work closely with the bank to ensure that those women get loans at the barest minimum interest available. After ensuring they access these loans, we also work with an agronomist that trains these women and ensures that they recover the money they put into their businesses.
She adds that “we are currently building IoT that can help women understand more about their soil and save water. Smart agriculture reduces costs, boosts efficiency, maximises results, saves water and energy, and more. It helps cultivators meet the requisite conditions to increase crop yield and health, thus contributing to sustainable agriculture.
“Critical factors such as the need to match food production to meet the rising population’s demands, existing threats to food security, and climatic changes that affect crop production urge farmers to look for innovative approaches to increase efficiency and productivity.”
The top priorities of smart agriculture using IoT focus on weather, soil temperature, moisture, nutrients, crop conditions, Npk measurement, solar radiation, etc.
“IoT sensors provide real-time data, which is helpful for both agribusinesses and farmers. They reduce manual labour, usage of water and energy, maintenance costs, and all these are made available to farmers via the Ustawi Africa platform,” Irungu says.
Is Ustawi free?
Irungu says Ustawi runs a hybrid system as the company is “a profit and non-profit organisation. We are funded by organisations like Stop Hunger because we are teaching rural women how to farm and feed themselves and their families.”
We also run a system where we work with only members who are registered to the Ustawi Africa platform and we charge a registration fee of 10 dollars per year. We also do propagation of seedlings, for those not registered with us we charge a consultation fee and we also charge for our technological equipment made available to these farmers. We have at least five channels through which we generate income.
Impact and memorable moments
The impact of Ustawi Africa since its inception in 2018 has been phenomenal, Irungu claims.
“We have trained more than 250 clusters of women on taking care of the soil (regenerative agriculture), tree planting, water harvesting, farm management, livestock management, and more than 3,500 are currently into commercial farming.
“Another key impact is that the technological equipment we provide makes farming easier. We have technology that gives the farmers information on humidity, predicts pests attack, and much more but if they do not use it, they keep on guessing, which is how some of these farmers sometimes lose money because their guesses are not often correct, but with technology, you get precise predictions.”
Of memorable moments, Irungu says “winning the STOP HUNGER AWARD, which we won for supporting women to be in the frontlines of the battle against hunger and malnutrition.
“Being invited to speak in Oslo, Norway about Africa and agriculture was also very memorable for me, but most memorable is attending events and getting to meet, listen to and interact with women who are building great solutions in several sectors, which always blows my mind.”
Challenges as a woman in tech?
Irungu argues that more needs to be done to help African women in tech access funding as it is a major challenge.
African women in tech need more capital ventures who understand the problems that exist in Africa, funding remains a major challenge for African women in tech, the reality is that we have so many programs that are offering mentorship for women in tech but they are not offering funds. We have several organisations that are ready to train us, and mentor us especially as African women but none is willing to help us raise funds which will aid us in providing solutions in Africa.
Irungu adds that women have to deal with the funding struggle and battle the “bias against women”.
“Women also have to deal with gender bias and sometimes bias based on skin colour. People seem surprised that an African woman is solving challenges using technology and there is almost this disbelief like, how can you, an African woman do that? Who is teaching you to use technology? I saw it play out in Norway when I was invited to speak in Oslo, Norway.”
Advice for women in tech
It is a long process to grow, it is not something that can be achieved overnight. We as African women in tech must realise that we are facing a big challenge, so surmounting these challenges will require every woman to be dogged, determined, patient and to not be afraid to knock on every available door. So, I am challenging every young woman out there to wake up and embrace the problems we are facing in our continent and begin to proffer solutions.
Irungu is a firm believer in the capability of Africa to solve her own problems, so part of her future aspirations involves seeing solutions to African problems by Africans.
“I believe that the future is Africa, it is only in Africa that we have more than 65% of arable land that can be converted to farmlands, so I believe that Africa has what it takes to feed her children and that women play a huge role in making this happen. For me and Ustawi, we want to improve food production, we want to reduce food wastage in silo farming, and we want to increase food production by training more female farmers not only in Kenya but in Africa at large, while also providing solutions to matters of climate change.”
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