The Do’s and Don'ts of scaling in West Africa: Ignitia’s story
Ignitia is the world’s first highly accurate weather forecasting company. We developed a weather model tailored for the tropics that creates GPS-specific forecasts that are twice as accurate as existing models. We send these to farmers via a simple SMS so they can make better farming decisions and increase yield.
We chose to start our venture in Ghana, and thanks to our success we have now been able to scale into Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso. For us here at Ignitia, scaling isn’t just about a ‘widening’ of our scope, but also a ‘deepening’ of our services in Ghana, where it all started. Over 2017 we’ve tripled our subscriber base from 100,000 to over 325,000, with a 97 per cent retention rate (we like to think that means they like us). These farmers use our SMS updates to plan around rainfall. Fertiliser application and cost of labour and equipment hire is saved, planting is not done too early, and harvests can be protected if unexpected late rains occur. M&E (monitoring and evaluation) confirms increased yields from 50 to 80 per cent at the end of the season, and these can lead to long term benefits like financial security, poverty reduction, and increased spending on education and health. Our activities also provide long-term benefits in the management of environmental resources: by allowing businesses and farmers to make the best decisions regarding the weather, we can decrease wastage of key resources.
We’ve already mentioned our expansion, but it hasn’t come without its challenges, and we are certain there will be more to come! Here’s some of the main obstacles we have faced when scaling in and out of Ghana, and our advice to aspiring startups looking to move to the next level.
One of the main obstacles when trying to expand a product - particularly across borders - is making sure that it is understood by as many people as possible. This can be a real issue in countries such as Ghana, where over 80 languages are spoken! We really wanted our service to be accessible in rural communities that don’t always have access to education, and so to work around this we put a lot of research into exactly what we should write into our SMS updates, keeping it as clear and simple as possible. This research, coupled with extensive training programmes in these communities, have helped us to overcome the language barrier and increase understanding of our service. We also send out SMS messages in French and Bambara in Mali, and are looking at diversifying our language output in Nigeria
Our advice: Carry out as much M&E as you can, there is nothing better than feedback straight from the communities who stand to benefit from your service. Make sure you maintain a consistent branding even when diversifying across languages.
It’s very easy to assume that strategies that have proven successful in one country will automatically bear the same fruit in a neighbouring country, and experience has taught us that is not always the case! For example, Ghana and Nigeria, whilst culturally similar in some ways (never ask who invented jollof rice!) are incredibly different in so many ways, and people are receptive to entirely different types of marketing and training. Whilst it would seem easy to simply replicate many of our strategies and materials for the Nigerian market, we found that the route with the most success was to start from scratch and conduct intensive research into each new market, slowly building a portfolio in each area.
Our advice: never make assumptions! Treat every new venture as exactly that: entirely new. Never underestimate the power of testimonials: a happy subscriber from a neighbouring town will be much more effective than one from a different country.
As with many enterprises with high aspirations, one of the most frustrating obstacles can be logistics: as the saying goes, the devil really is in the details! Working with Mobile Network Operators can be a lengthy and frustrating process, and establishing a connection can easily take up to a year. We are now in a position where our connection with 9mobile in Nigeria is almost live, and we are currently working with 3 more operators in Ghana, but this has been a long and often bumpy road.
Our advice: plan well ahead and always leave enough time for obstacles to be thrown in your way. Never expect anything to be an easy process, West Africa has a habit of making you regret it!
As an enterprise scales and starts to cover more ground, it’s normal that marketing efforts need to grow to meet demand. This in itself has brought many challenges. Competition within the MNO (mobile network operator) sector in West Africa is fierce, especially for effective marketing tools such as end of call notifications and bulk SMS services.
Our advice: maintain good relationships with your MNO contacts, and once again, plan well in advance. Keep an eye on the competition in order to stay one step ahead.
As Ignitia heads into 2018, our aims are higher than ever. Scaling, whilst not without its risks, is an exciting process and if your product is sound then despite these obstacles success is just around the corner (or perhaps even over the border). Good luck!
This blog post is part of the February 2018 edition of the ‘THEME’ that reflects on scaling inclusive business.
What motivated entrepreneurs to stay focused while scaling their business? How did they overcome hard times trying to reach scale? What navigated them through this process? Read the full series to see what thought leaders and practitioners think about these questions.