February has been a busy month. January has been as well for that matter. In January we had an empty piece of land and an idea. Little more than that to prove we were entrepreneurs. Today we are producing 30 kgs of fodder each day and have one customer. While some companies are in idea phase for years before they are able to produce their first product, we are not one of those companies.
In the two months since our last update, we have built five different types of hydroponic systems, tried an equal number of irrigation methods, and produced over 50 iterations of our product based on variables we changed, such as volume of water, flow rate, sunlight and angle, and width and length of trays. We have changed everything from the source and cleanliness of the water and our sanitizing mediums, to the gauge of aluminum sheeting that we are using to manufacture trays for testing alternative irrigation methods.
If there is one thing that we have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt – this technology is deceivingly complex, and managing it is far more complicated than many local players have imagined. This greatly reinforces our belief that the technology is too complicated for farmers to self manage.
Today we have a greenhouse on the land we are renting and three types of hydroponic systems that are each able to produce around 30 kg of fodder per day. The systems are metal, since as a building material it is so much more precise and stronger than anything else, and the price is not much more. To manage them, we have hired a woman named Esther.
She is wonderful and very helpful. We greatly appreciate her work. She is responsible for irrigation, cleaning, soaking, germinating and planting the seeds. When she harvests the fodder each day, she finds a new potential customer each time to give a free sample to and tell them about the product. She sometimes brings samples back to repeat customers to see how the cow’s interest in the fodder changes. It turns out the cows, like humans, are shy of new foods, but once they know they like it, they happily eat it.
This week I signed up our first prospective paying customer. They will not pay yet, though. We will deliver the fodder to them each day, and they will give us feedback, Once we prove our product, they will pay. As we show them that our fodder is better then the feed they are using today, we will, as he said, “have trouble producing enough” since everyone here speaks one language – milk production. While I know that they speak several languages and one of them is cost, these are encouraging words.
This marks the official launch of our market and product trials. We learn more every day than we knew the day before. That is, in the end, the goal of the trials. We will sign up one or two customers a week for the next few weeks, matching this with development of production. By the end of March we hope to build out the system and start being able to charge customers for the product.
In March, we want to answer one question: Will people see enough value in the product to pay for it?
While this may seem a simple question, its importance to the company’s success is paramount. Most customers are very excited about it and seem to see the benefits clearly. What they need to be shown is the additional milk production they will have and cost of the product. Suddenly, all future challenges will be welcomed with open arms, dwarfed by the confidence we will have. I personally am very much looking forward to that day. Once that question is clearly answered, huge potentials will open for partnerships, market access, and funding.
So far, we have done well at looking into the opportunities that await this business. Just today, I had a wonderful conversation with an organization that is looking at bringing remote cow health monitoring technology to Kenya. One thing they would do is monitor the health of the cow and then suggest feeding regimens for the animal, with almost immediate feedback given to farmers on what to change based on the health of the animal. To do this, they will analyze the feeds on the Kenyan market, then suggest alternative feeds that would better meet the cow’s needs. I see the link is clear.
Juhudi Kilimo is a very large finance institution that lends to smallholder farmers for agricultural inputs. (This is over simplified, and for that I am sorry. They do a huge amount of amazing things, too many for this simple blog I fear). With access to hundreds and thousands of farmers, they would be an excellent partner for deeper market testing and potential scale. While we are in too early a stage to fully partner with them now, they have reached out a helping hand to help get the product to market. This is tremendously helpful and encouraging.
This and so many other conversations with Land-O-Lakes, TechnoServe, and several potential funders have created a positive tone for the potential of the business and the breadth of the problem we aim to solve.
We have accomplished a lot on the business organization side as well. On January 30th, 2015 we were officially registered as LishaBora Hydroponics Ltd. We have been pledged over USD 26,000 in funding and will be receiving a long-term fellow from Engineers Without Borders Canada in May. This, coupled with the traction we have already seen on the production side of the company paints a picture of tremendous potential through diverse partnerships that will help us with technology, funding, access to market, and business development.