Silicon Valley’s tech giants have been eagerly taking stock of the growing numbers of motorbikes speeding through the streets of Kenya. When Google launched a ‘Motorbike Mode’ on its Maps in Kenya last October, the company noted on its Africa blog how “over a million Kenyans use motorbikes as their preferred mode of transport.” Accordingly, ridesharing apps like Uber and Taxify have also both tailored their products to the Kenyan market — offering motorbike pickup options to help commuters weave through traffic or find nifty shortcuts through otherwise barely accessible backstreets.
In similar traffic-dodging fashion, motorbikers armed with smartphones are revving-up agri-tech innovation in this swiftly developing East African nation. In particular, the Kenyan startup Sidai Africa has been deploying an expanding fleet of motorbikes as a quick and easy way to dispatch specialist farming products and services to livestock farms in remote areas.
Sidai’s freewheeling approach — and its ability to reach areas that have long been underserved and considered unreachable — has been generating a wide range of attention from investors, philanthropists and governments. From its founding in 2011, it caught attention and startup funding from Africa-based impact investors such as AHL Venture Partners — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was also an early supporter.) Then came government organizations like USAID and various research institutions and NGOs. This month, it was the turn of Devenish, the UK-headquartered, global agri-tech company specializing in animal nutrition, to inject funds into Sidai to the tune of $2.25 million.
“From a standing start, we’ve grown significantly over the past eight years,” says Sidai founder Dr Christie Peacock, a former CEO of non-profit Farm Africa. “Our mission is to enable every small-scale farmer in Kenya to produce food in a predictable and profitable way, and this investment will help us to achieve our goals.”
By 2020, Dr Peacock tells AgFunderNews, “Sidai will have a near national distribution network and be looking to expand outside Kenya.”
With $2.25m Cash Helmet From Devenish, International Expansion Beckons
According to its 2019 Company Profile, Sidai currently has 11 stores, 87 franchisees, and sells through a further 1,500 stockists. It directly employs over 120 people and reaches over 300,000 farmers.
Due to infrastructure problems and logistical difficulties, the farms Sidai now services have traditionally struggled for access to quality farming products like vaccines, fertilizers or diagnostic equipment; the farmers themselves find it hard to attain or acquire sound veterinary or technical expertise.
Sidai’s riders aim to fill these knowledge and product voids. Rather than resorting to remote access via smartphones, or dispatches of drones, the company has trained some of its staff to be motorbike capable, so they can get to the scene and offer hands-on business, veterinary or technical help to farmers from the moment they dismount. Packed on the back of their bikes are a widening range of farming products for crops or livestock. Orders, payment systems and real-time delivery routes are coordinated and tracked via the company’s in-house MioApp.
The Sidai management team call this their “unique ‘last mile’ delivery model.” Though it may one day involve drones — and they have recently established the Sidai Academy to offer online courses remotely — Dr Peacock sees good reasons for steering clear of drones for the time being; not least that their use for such purposes in Kenya remains outlawed. “We distribute knowledge through the extension staff who ride the bikes, as well as heavy products like mineral supplements or liquid dewormers in the boxes on the back of the bikes,” she says. “No drone can do that!”
Bikes Versus Drones
For the work Sidai is doing, Dr Peacock adds, there is “no drone that can carry any seriously useful weight of product a useful distance at an affordable price yet.” For now, she says: “We mostly use cheap Bajaj motorbikes, sometimes Yamahas.”
Much work still needs to be done. “There remains a significant yield gap between actual and potential production and significant losses from pests and diseases, which urgently need to be addressed,” reads the company profile. “Maize yields are 25%-35% of what they could be, while 25% of livestock die from preventable diseases every year.”
Greater efficiency is vital for a country like Kenya, where roughly a quarter of its GDP is agriculture. There is also a demographic challenge that needs to be met. According to UN estimates, the Kenyan population boomed from less than 7 million in 1955 to almost 52 million in 2019. Such profound growth, which continues apace, has geared up pressure on the country’s farming communities to deliver ever higher yields.
To help prevent losing livestock needlessly, Sidai has been offering 30 veterinary internships per year, alongside its recently launched online training platform, the Sidai Academy. So far, according to its 2019 Company profile, 700 poultry professionals have been trained through a joint Sidai and Elanco/Lohmann Animal Health poultry course.
Kickstarting Scientific Innovation, Disease Prevention
Elsewhere on the disease prevention front, Sidai is working with the UK’s Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock and the Edinburgh-based company Biotangents “to develop a diagnostic tool to test for the bacteria causing Contagious Pleuropneumonia.”
Sidai is working with EIO Diagnostics to test a device in Kenya called the FirstLook Mastitis system. This combines advanced sensor and machine learning to detect infection signs days before there are physical indications in the udder or milk. Results, the team say, are provided in less than a second without the need for samples from the milk or the cow, and a signal is provided instantly that integrates with the workflow of the farm.
Sidai has also worked with Global Good to field test its new plastic Mazzican milk container — now manufactured in Kenya and distributed through the Sidai network. Finally, Sidai has helped the Michigan Biotechnology Institute deploy its AFEXä — an approach converting low digestibility biomass into much more digestible animal feeds, equivalent to alfalfa pellets. Sidai is helping to test AFEX pellets in feeding trials of beef cattle in Kenya, work supported by USAID.