For Jan Willem and Almut Van Casteren, it all began with chilies.
In 2004, the founders of the company eProd Solutions, had recently moved to Kenya after meeting the year before in Bolivia to start a chili export business. While the business was based in Nairobi, the chilies were grown by farmers on the coast.
“We had about 10,000 farmers organized in 500 different groups producing under contract a variety of chilies for us, and we were managing them from a distance. Growing chilies is very labor intensive, and we needed to develop an ICT system for ourselves,” said Jan Willem. “So we built a system around our business model that allowed us to manage a large number of farmers remotely. The fact that we could manage 10,000 farmers from a distance of 600 kilometers, it wass all because of the software [system].”
In the process of building a system that allowed them to organize and manage their own business more efficiently, Jan Willem and Almut began to learn more about the needs and challenges farmers faced, as well as the needs and challenges of running businesses like theirs, which thrive on complex networks of production. Jan Willem reconnected with an old friend from college, and the two began discussing the potential impact that their system could have on other sectors.
Out of that conversation, the development of the current eProd Solutions software began. Today, eProd Solutions has developed a commercial system for over 60 clients to source from over 250,000 farmers. “Through the process of building the software, I began focusing more on mobilizing farmers, and [my partner] was focused on building the software systems,” Jan Willem said. “And we designed different systems for different sectors – dairy, commodities, fresh exports, and so on.”
Today, eProd Solutions is largely managed and driven by Almut, as Jan Willem works as an advisor across Africa, counselling governments on Public-Private Partnerships. eProd’s many clients range from food processors to commodity traders to farming corporations. Almut said that one of the main benefits to using the eProd software is the transparency it provides.
“Companies are able to manage payments and make sure each farmer receives what he or she is supposed to receive without someone in the middle,” she said. “We start with creating very comprehensive farmer profiles and training farmers to make sure that the crop they are growing meet the market standards. If you know who your farmers are and you understand your market, you can start providing loans for farmers to grow their businesses, and you can help them with forecasts for planting and harvesting. Often times, companies have 10,000 farmers involved in their supply chain, but they don’t know who and where they are or what they’re doing. There is a disconnect, and we need to create a link between farmers and companies and educate farmers about the market. Very simply, that is what we do at eProd.”
Over the years, eProd Solutions’s software and services have grown to address a variety of needs, from providing counsel to farmers on seed and soil to helping them with forecasting to connecting them to crop insurance providers. Almut said she is currently most excited about eProd’s latest feature, which allows for quality-based payments to farmers, meaning that farmers are paid on the quality, not just quantity, of their products.
“It is a motivating factor for them to improve their crops and their methods,” she said.
On her own motivation, Almut says the thing that drives her forward at eProd is being able to connect companies and farmers to each other and provide them with the links to more opportunities in the market.
“Working in Africa, it’s more down to the roots than it is in the West. There is a little bit of coaching work involved with the farmers, and the more companies and partners you meet, the more you can create linkages to the markets. The market is never the issue. It’s all about the link.”
At the World Food Bank, we are working with eProd Solutions to manage our smallholder farmer networks across East Africa, and provide them with better data, as well as links to the market.
To learn more about eProd Solutions, visit their website.