South Africa

Pivoting to Survive in South Africa: An Unusual Innovation Finds A Way

Business is a bumpy road with twists and turns. No one knows this better than Dr. Muthoni Masinde, who has a proven record of predicting drought in a region where dry conditions cause 70 percent of the calamities. It could easily be said that her program—part of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) initiative that began six years ago in a worldwide effort to grow more crops with less water—is a farmer’s best friend. Dr. Masinde runs a for-profit enterprise based at the Central University for Technology/ITIKI program at Bloemfontein, South Africa, but her program also covers farmers in Kenya, her home country, as well as Mozambique. 

An unusual but proven aspect of her business is predicting weather patterns in specific regions by combining scientific forecasting techniques and indigenous knowledge gained for centuries. As with many businesses, hers has been a struggle in its quest for sustainability and, hopefully, scalability. She realized this last year and pivoted to a more aggressive strategy to, in essence, widen her net.

Previously, her company had been signing up farmers for the service mostly on an individual farmer basis. Now, with some guidance and team training from the technical assistance provided by SWFF, ITIKI has moved on to a business to business (B2B) model. Her targets now are regional governments and institutions such as micro-financing businesses where the opportunity to reach more clients at one time increases exponentially.  

“It’s a slow and difficult process,” said Dr. Masinde, “But we can reach more potential clients. One such area of interest is the Limpopo province in the northernmost territory of South Africa”. 

By combining scientific forecasts with indigenous knowledge, we get a clearer picture.

“It’s primarily a farming province. If the local government can subscribe on behalf of the farmers, then we are talking about thousands of them in one subscription,” she added. Dr. Masinde, who is both a meteorologist and a computer scientist, has very direct messages for her potential subscribers. “Food security is the main marketing message we use. In one area we target, 80 percent of the people rely on agriculture and the success of their harvests,” said Dr. Masinde. “If they do not have sufficient yields, the government must look to feed the people.”

When it comes to micro-financing institutions, the message is that ITIKI (which stands for Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence) can increase the rate of repayment through predictability in farming by predicting specific weather patterns. 

“If farmers can predict when and where rain will and will not fall in a specified region, they can plan accordingly with water conservation, planting, and irrigation,” she said. While the idea to pivot to a B2B strategy came to Dr. Masinde early on, the question of just how to accomplish this was a product of the SWFF program, and the experts it employed to give guidance. 

In fact, Dr. Masinde, who recently received her MBA degree to go along with her doctorate so she could be more business savvy, believes the global program has aided her team in each step along the way. “Getting to the B2B customer has been our biggest challenge, but the technical assistance received—funded by SWFF—has made us ready to reach out,” she said.

Dr. Masinde brought in team members from Kenya, Mozambique, as well as South Africa, to guarantee all were up to speed and attended meetings with an India development team from one of SWFF’s technical support vendors, Sattva. “Their central idea was to ensure that when we speak to governments or companies seeking partnerships, we sell using the same messages,” said Dr. Masinde, who recently made two trips to Kenya to enlist subscribers. 

“At times, I have been discouraged, but I guess that is the nature of the business,” she said. “I see reaching out to B2B customers as our primary challenge, but we are prepared to face it head-on.”

Dr. Masinde is effusive in her praise of the assistance given by the SWFF program, which is funded by USAID and the governments of Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands. “It’s been so complete. In fact, I keep saying that SWFF has given us as a company everything we needed for success,” she said. “They even helped us with our marketing and our branding. I don’t know what we would have done without them. They opened our eyes to almost everything we needed.”

Dr. Masinde was drawn into her field of weather prediction at an early age when she saw news reports of drought in her native Kenya. “I would see news reports growing up of starving children,” she said. “I wanted to do something about it, and by giving farmers a better opportunity to have successful crops was one answer.”

Muthoni said it was at the failure of the mostly macro level scientific weather knowledge systems, in addressing the micro-level needs of small scale farmers that motivated the conceptualization of ITIKI.  This gave her the idea to combine local and historical information with the scientific weather mapping.

“The weather forecasts are too all-encompassing,” she said. “It might help in predicting what happens six months into the future, but it’s important to know what will happen tomorrow in specific areas. By combining scientific forecasts with indigenous knowledge, we get a clearer picture.”

Indigenous knowledge is not some mysterious methodology. It is factoring in what has been learned through generations utilizing nature’s clues. All the data is fed into computer models to determine the prospects of rain or dryness. When she seeks investors and gives speeches about her company, she drives home three points: The project is worthy of serious investment, the methodology can be exported to other countries, and finally, it works. 



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water