LA Report: Why did you set up your company?
I spent many years working with isolated, indigenous communities in Peru and saw first-hand the grassroots innovation and ideas they were creating to solve challenges. However, I also saw that there was a huge discrepancy in the way this knowledge was shared, and information in general was accessed, in the developing world compared to the massive trend towards decentralization of knowledge and peer to peer sharing in the Western world driven by the internet.
In 2009 I was offered the chance to be part of the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF - A UK registered charity working with small-scale farmers around the world) start-up team with Claire Rhodes. We put our ideas and experiences together to design the first version of what would become WeFarm.
LA Report: When did you set up your business, and how long did it take?
WeFarm launched as a social enterprise in January 2015, and we launched the product 1 month later in Kenya. We had previously been piloting and developing WeFarm as a CPF project for several years before taking the step to launch and scale as a social business - we felt this was a much more scalable and sustainable model.
We developed the product with farming communities in Peru, Kenya and Tanzania which I think was unbelievably beneficial - it meant that we developed something that people on the ground find useful and actually want to use!
LA Report: Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’ (ie. which led to you starting your business, or which triggered a change in the way you did things)?
I think the path to WeFarm being launched was more of a gradual coming together of ideas, experiences and pilots than a single lightbulb moment. However, there have a few special moments along the way. I would pick out the first international test we did with farmers in Peru and Kenya as a great WeFarm moment… I was with a group of rural farmers in Peru as the first messages came in from Kenya, and it was amazing to see people’s reaction to receiving key information from the other side of the world, all in their own language and without internet. That was the moment I knew we had something of huge potential on our hands.
LA Report: What education or training did you have?
I studied Architecture as a degree at university, which led me to a job for an international NGO based in Peru. I specialised in designing grassroots projects in indigenous communities, mainly fish-farms. I have since been undertaking an Executive MBA - but running a startup hasn’t left me much time recently!
LA Report: Where did you source funding to set up your business?
WeFarm initially was developed and tested under the UK charity Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF) and received grant funding from Nominet Trust and Knight Foundation. Then, in 2014 we won the Google Impact Challenge Award. The prize money enabled us to put our plans to launch WeFarm at scale as a social enterprise into action.
In 2015 we were part of the Wayra accelerator programme in London, which included investment into WeFarm.
LA Report: Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?
The Wayra accelerator programme was very valuable in getting business support, coaching, mentoring, and certainly a lot of practice in how to pitch!
We have also been part of the Ideas From Europe initiative run by the European Commission over the last few months. This has helped us gain a bit of exposure on the European stage, and culminated in a talk at TEDxBinnenhof last week which was very exciting.
LA Report: With hindsight, which would have been the single most valuable skill to have before setting up your business?
I’d say pitching and public speaking. It’s not necessarily fair that startup businesses are judged on a two or three minute ‘pitch’, but that is the reality. There is no doubt that the startups who can tell a great story and capture people’s imagination in a pitch find themselves with lots more opportunities across PR, funding and entry into different events.
Ultimately you obviously need to have substance behind it to succeed, but I’d certainly advise startup founders to practice, practice and practice their pitch. Or be brave enough to know it’s not your thing, and find a partner who can.
LA Report: Do you have a mentor?
I’ve been lucky enough to had support from a great group of people over the last few years, including our board of directors at WeFarm and David Fogel from Wayra UK. We have had a great deal of support from some senior figures at Telefonica as well, which has helped immensely. My advice to other entrepreneurs would be that it’s important to surround yourself with people much smarter than you!
LA Report: Who is your greatest role model or inspiration?
A few people over the years! I’ve always admired James Dyson, and connect with his story of endlessly trying to convince people that he had a better solution in the face of huge scepticism. One of the biggest lessons that I have learned over the last few years is that very few people are willing to validate an idea themselves… they wait for the crowd do it for them before getting involved. This can be a powerful force to overcome, but once you reach a tipping point you need to harness that momentum quickly.
LA Report: What is the USP that distinguishes your product or service from its competitors?
Both our peer to peer model, and enabling isolated farmers to access and share vital information… even without access to the internet.
It is widely acknowledged that access to information is a vital part of lifting people out of poverty, however there is also an almost universal opinion that this is best done in a ‘top down’ fashion. Essentially, that poor people just need to be told what to do. This is completely in contrast to the crowd-sourcing models and decentralization of knowledge that we have developed in the Western world. WeFarm’s biggest USP is to say the rules aren’t different for the other half of the global population.
LA Report: How does your company impact people’s lives for the better?
WeFarm enables farmers living below the poverty line to access vital information on agriculture. This information can help farmers to increase crop yield, increase their household income and ultimately improve their livelihoods. We have seen lots of examples of farmers implementing the advice they receive through WeFarm, whether that is the most successful farming techniques, diversifying into new crops and starting micro-businesses.
LA Reports: How long did it take you to break into new markets (if relevant)?
Every time we have launched into a market we’ve learned a lot of lessons, so our growth in new markets is getting quicker and quicker. When we first launched in Kenya in February last year, it took us around five months to scale from 0 to 8,000 users, but recently we’ve replicated that in Uganda, in just three months!
LA Report: How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome?
I think we have grown phenomenally quickly considering who our target audience is - the very nature of the farmers we’re targeting means that they live in isolated regions, and are difficult to contact. We’ve found lots of great ways to get the word to them, through features on radio stations and running training days in conjunction with co-operatives or other farming organisations. We also recently trained a group of young people as youth ambassadors to train other people in their communities how to register to WeFarm and they have done an amazing job in helping other farmers sign up. We consistently try to innovate how we can reach people to get our message out.
LA Reports: How are you planning to grow your business?
We’re currently in the process of raising investment, which will enable us to keep increasing the number of people using WeFarm. Our goal is to reach 1 million farmers in the next 12 months. In addition to this, we’re hoping to launch in a couple of key new markets, such as India and Brazil, and release the next version of WeFarm that will build on all the lessons we’ve learned through 7.3 million interactions in our first year.
LA Report: If you were in charge of the government ministry for SMEs and start-ups, what would be the three most important changes you would make to help them grow?
1. Supporting scale. Social enterprises particular suffer from a conservative environment that doesn’t encourage them to scale quickly and aggressively. Ultimately if we are going to solve society's biggest challenges we need to encourage large and even global solutions.
2. Educating the general public about social enterprise and charity models. I see a lot of misunderstandings about how charities and social enterprises do, and should, work. I think this leads to people donating money or supporting causes on relevant measures (e.g. the charity that spends £8 of your £10 ‘on the ground’ is better than the charity who spends £5) rather than impact.
3. Support for SMEs on things such as HR and tax law - it’s very hard for start-ups, with barely any resource, to know and comply with the multitude of rules in these areas, and it can often distract from actually building a company.
LA Report: The best thing about being an entrepreneur is…?
The fast pace and exciting environment. It’s a cliché to call it a ‘rollercoaster’ ride… but that’s pretty accurate!
LA Report: What do you see as the key trends/disruptors for 2016 relevant to entrepreneurs?
For social entrepreneurs, I hope 2016 will be a breakthrough year. I think we are seeing a new type of large social enterprise emerge (SE 2.0!) that builds on the early pioneers like Zapos and Cafedirect, and takes the model to new levels of the social impact being ingrained in the profit generating model. I hope that from these enterprises we’ll see an increased investment confidence in social models.
LA Report: If you could go back to when you were about to start your company and give yourself a single message or piece of advice, what would it be?
I think it would be to try and take a step back more often. It’s easy to get very caught up in the everyday tasks that running a start-up involves, and de-prioritise the bigger picture as it doesn’t have to be doesn’t right now. But I think it’s important to be able to take time out and regroup occasionally, as well as confident enough to focus on the bigger strategic development of the company.