Success story: How iCow scaled and scaled

Three years ago the Indigo Trust came in as sole funder of Kenyan farming SMS service, iCow. The trust ended up awarding £87 782 in total, but the company now has 150 000 users and a signed deal with the country’s largest mobile operator Safaricom. Founder of iCow, Su Kahumbu, tells us more…

©Martin Storey,

“We provide content on all livestock and important crops and soils to farmers. Users can subscribe to livestock calendars and Mashauri, a three-SMS-a-week information service. [They can also] access the contact details of relevant stakeholders. Our service has increased milk yields, improved livestock health and reduced mortality.

We’re almost achieving sustainability. The service charges users a premium-rate SMS. We generate income through a revenue-share model with mobile network Safaricom and through third-party users interested in data, reports or having a presence in the content. We’re also exploring selective marketing of farmers’ products – our focus is ‘value for farmers first’. We’ve recently taken in the Elea Foundation as equity investors to enable our organisation to grow and the platform to scale globally.

Having Safaricom as a partner must be the dream of most mobile tech startups. We’re working hard to make the most of this opportunity. When you’re a small cog in big system, you have to work twice as hard to turn the bigger cogs. This requires new skills and focusing on new areas of the business. Building relationships and understanding the internal workings of the corporate world are imperative to ensure we stay aligned while maintaining our agile startup culture.

I believe startups should stay lean until they have a product fit and the right partnerships to guarantee scaling potential. Personally, I was also incredibly lucky to have a mentor, Micheal Mithika, assigned to me, which has been invaluable in guiding me through the labyrinth of business.

At the initial stages, grant funding was essential to enable us to ‘play in the sand box’ without the risk of losing IP through early equity investments. Sadly though, I feel most innovations in Africa are over- funded too early, which can be distracting. Grant funding should be small and given in tranches based on performance to keep innovators focused and performance-driven.”

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