Wanted: Mobile apps for African agriculture (Credit: infoDev)
Today, there are close to 900 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa. Sixty-five percent of the continent’s labor force works in agriculture or related sectors and it accounts for 32% of the gross domestic product. Mobile innovations are already improving efficiencies in the agricultural value chain; research  shows that grain traders with mobile application usage experienced income growth of 29% and banana farmers in Uganda saw their revenues go up with 36%.
The mAgri Challenge , a business competition , has been designed to identify and support entrepreneurs developing mobile apps for agriculture in Africa. If you have worked with mobile tech entrepreneurs in Africa over the last few years, you might be thinking: “Not another mobile apps challenge!” This ‘competition fatigue’ is not completely unwarranted. Too many quick competitions for mobile apps, which at first seemed cool and generated lots of attention, have left in their wake a pool of mobile entrepreneurs confused about the next steps they can take to grow their business.
It’s understandable why competitions are en vogue. They are fun, they are not very expensive and they are a great way to reach a young and growing tech-savvy audience. Unfortunately, some of the past competitions have ended with the award of prizes, missing the chance to continue to support talented mobile entrepreneurs as they develop their businesses. In designing infoDev’s new mAgri Challenge, we have has been focused on the elements of past competitions that worked well, and learned from those that did not.
We support mobile technology entrepreneurs as they take their products all the way down the path from mind to market - from the idea stage to a point of sustainable growth. We ensure that our initiatives are linked to other opportunities along that path, to maximize each entrepreneur’s chance of success. With every successful, growing new company, entrepreneurs create high-value jobs that contribute to their country’s economies, reduce brain drain and improve competitiveness. This journey from mind to market was at the forefront of the design process for the mAgri Challenge, where we relied on a number of lessons drawn from our own and others’ experiences with mobile app competitions.
- Support shouldn’t end when the competition is over: Commitment to follow through on an initial idea should be built into incentives for participation in the competition, for example, by offering mentoring or incubation as a prize. Well-structured support after competitions is vital to bringing products to market, and often desired more by entrepreneurs than one-off cash prizes. In the case of the mAgri Challenge, winners will have the chance to join a week-long mobile startup camp to hone their pitching skills and learn about the best ways of working with mentors.
- Context and local knowledge always matter: Face-to-face outreach and training can significantly improve the quantity and quality of businesses that ultimately take their products to market. Dedicated community leaders can greatly help to identify and nurture talent. We are relying on our network of mobile hubs and labs  (in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania) and our partners in countries like Senegal, Ghana and Zambia, to help us find the best of the mAgri crop.
- Engage the key ecosystem players: An entrepreneur’s success depends partly on an the innovation ecosystem in which he/she operates. The quality of mobile communications infrastructure, availability of technical talent, involvement of experienced mentors, access to appropriate financing, and opportunities for key business partnerships can all help or harm a fledgling business. Wherever possible, competitions should be opportunities for partnerships between entrepreneurs, mobile network operators, handset manufacturers, investors, educators, content providers, and other public and private entities fundamental to the mobile innovation ecosystem.
Winners of the challenge will participate in a week-long Startup Camp where they will refine their business models, meet seasoned technology entrepreneurs and pitch their businesses to investors. For more information on how to apply, please visit www.infodev.org/magri .