Feature: Rwanda’s Lilian Uwintwali aspiring to digitalize Africa’s agriculture

KIGALI, Sept. 25 (Xinhua) — Rwanda’s Lilian Uwintwali, the brain behind Mahwi Tech, an Agritech firm, is aspiring to digitize agriculture in Africa.

Through a platform dubbed MLIMA digital marketplace, the firm has helped address demand and supply chain gaps of agriculture commodities in Rwanda using digital technologies to contribute to food systems security.

“The firm currently serves 20,000 small holder farmers, providing access to high end markets and financing via MLIMA digital marketplace and the plan is to expand to other countries on the continent,” Uwintwali, the chief executive of Mahwi Tech firm, told Xinhua.

More than 60 farmers’ cooperatives work with the MLIMA cooperative management system to digitize their operations and keep digital records of their finances, production, sales, stock and a database of all their member profiles and farm records.

“When farmers have access to market information, they are able to access high end markets where they are not taken advantage of by middlemen who give them low prices for their products. So, they get big buyers who offer good prices,” Uwintwali said. “Consequently, farmers’ lives improve in terms of income generation, they are able to pay school fees for their children and enjoy improved welfare.”

The technology rolled out in 2013, according to Uwintwali, has undergone upgrades over the years.

It was developed after conducting research on cooperatives in about 15 districts of the country on the kind of problems farmers faced and what the role of technology would play in addressing the issue.

The research revealed that farmers were selling their produce to middlemen who were cheating them in the process.

“So, in essence the cooperatives were not getting value from their production, but they could persist despite working in losses just for the sake of survival. At the moment things are improving, when you talk to famers you can notice the difference after farmers’ incomes and sales increased,” she said, adding that the technology they built was informed by research.

The work model involved working hand in hand with farmers so that they provide input onto the features that were upgraded in the system. The developers also ensured it is really technology that is friendly to farmers.

Uwintwali was among the four African women agripreneurs who emerged as the winners of 85,000 US dollars grant during the Women Agripreneur of the Year Awards 2022 in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda earlier this month.

The annual grants from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) recognize women agripreneurs from across the continent who have excelled in different segments of the agricultural value chain and shown remarkable innovation in their businesses.

Responding to the question about her motivation, Uwintwali said she always had a passion to develop the rural community as the heart of the country’s development.

“I have always been passionate about development, especially of the rural community. As a young child growing up, I always thought that Africa deserves better, Africa can feed itself but you always find that to date we are dependent on the western world, yet they have limited resources compared to Africa,” she said.

“If the rural community is empowered, and you build their capacity and develop them, these are the people who can do wonders. I have always aspired to do something not only different but something big to change the community, especially the rural community.”

The Agritech firm has a team of 10 employees five of whom are permanent staff. It aims to expand across the continent, especially in countries which have shown interest.

“In terms of market we are planning to expand to other countries after seeing the success of the technology in Rwanda. I felt very excited about the award, and I hope it will open our doors to easily expand to other markets with the partnership we have ,” said Uwintwali.

The platform currently focuses on maize and beans, but the plan is to expand to vegetables. In terms of products rather than just providing market information, the company wants farmers to be able to trade and receive money at the convenience of their mobile phones through mobile payment.

The uniqueness of the technology is that it is customized for small holder farmers unlike any other marketplace, taking into consideration the needs of the farmers and with simple technology to understand.

Uwintwali noted that youth engagement in agriculture is a challenge, but the company is working with other partners to address the issue.

Noting that the agriculture sector has a lot of opportunities, she thinks that in order to advance agriculture in a digital way there is a need to engage young people who are tech savvy, that have the skills to use the technology.

Educating older farmers from scratch, to make them understand is quite a challenge because of their age and their interest level, she said.

Uwintwali stressed that there is a lot one can do in agriculture such as branding, production, value addition, processing, logistics or technology. “It is amazing. Getting involved in agriculture does not mean going to the farm,” she said.

She advised young women to dare taking up tech courses and other careers which have always been dominated by men. “The future belongs to those who are tech savvy,” she said.

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