Tech-savvy students create jobs, target agri-solutions

More and more Zimbabwean students are establishing tech start-ups, some have gone on to win international prizes and one managed to obtain a staggering US$100,000 in seed capital from a global foundation.

These are not ordinary students who go job hunting after university life. They are employment creators in their own right who have used their university education as a springboard into other opportunities.

The tech-savvy students are using their skills in different fields to solve day-to-day problems.

One of them is Tafadzwa Chikwereti (23), a final-year quantity surveying student at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe, who grew up on his family’s farm, where he was exposed to the deep-rooted problems these farmers face.

At the age of 19, Chikwereti started Musika, a small company which linked farmers to buyers through WhatsApp.

Last year, he teamed up with two other university students, Golden Nhunhama and Tafadzwa Mutanho, to launch a tech-start-up eAgro, using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to solve some of the problems that farmers face.

This has helped to increase their agricultural yields and profits through data analytics and AI solutions.

To show how serious their work is, the students entered in a national hackathon for AgriTech the same year in which the company was formed. It was organised by the state-run Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) and they were winners, pocketing ZW$4.5 million (about US$12,435).

The hackathon was aimed at proffering sustainable solutions that make use of information and communications technology to mitigate the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on different human endeavours in the health, education, agriculture, industry and commercial sectors.

Award-winning agri-entrepreneur

In an interview, Chikwereti said their agri-tech start-up has three employees. He also talked about eAgro’s work.

“Our credit risk assessment model is providing agri players with an agriculturally relevant and data-driven model to assess risk,” he said.

“We collect and aggregate alternative datasets from multiple sources such as social data, agronomic data, environmental data, economic data and satellite data to provide alternative credit scores and decision tools that enable financial institutions to develop products for these farmers.

“The credit model is offered as software to micro-finance institutions, banks and organisations working with providing either inputs or credit to farmers. It uses satellite data, alternative data and machine learning,” he said.

“Our second product currently piloting is Cropfix, a WhatsApp and text-based chat-bot that assists in identifying plant damage from pests, diseases and nutrient deficiency with the help of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“Images taken by farmers in the field are sent and automatically analysed by our algorithms which identify crop diseases, pests or nutrient deficiency within seconds.”

The students’ efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Apart from the POTRAZ award, they have been recognised by Anzisha which recognises entrepreneurs from different African countries.

The Anzisha award with prize money of US$20,000 goes to young Africans in a partnership with the African Leadership Academy and the Mastercard Foundation. It is aimed at building an ecosystem that drives entrepreneurship and economic growth through young people.

Chikwereti also received an award from MIT Solve, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has a mission to drive innovation to solve some of the world’s challenges by young people aged 24 and under who present solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues, particularly those related to learning, economic prosperity, health and sustainability.

Chikwereti said that, as they worked on their projects, they found the shortage of critical skills in Zimbabwe to be a challenge as they had to outsource additional help for some project aspects that require deep AI and classification models.

He added, however, that they do have lecturers who are more than willing to assist sharing their knowledge experience and skills in enhancing their journey.

But what made Chikwereti think of starting a tech start-up while he is still at university?

“I grew up on a farm, so I always had an eye for agri-related activities. When I got to university, I started talking to friends and we started from there,” he said.

Chikwereti said that, when he leaves university, rather than look for a job, he will continue to concentrate on the agri-tech.

The dream of eAgro is to be able to scale into other countries within the Southern African Development Community region and be able to put its services and products in the hands of every farmer.

Chikwereti said his higher education has helped him on a number of fronts: to develop his cognitive skills to better evaluate and exploit entrepreneurial opportunities, to increase his level of self-confidence and to reduce perceived risk.

Golden Nhunhama, Image provided

Walking his purpose

Chikwereti’s colleague in the project, Golden Nhunhama, a business studies and computer science honours student at the University of Zimbabwe, who will be graduating in 2022, said that, by running a start-up as a student, he was “walking in his purpose”.

Nhunhama said he had always dreamed of running a large conglomerate and the work he is doing with the tech company is part of that dream.

“I grew up spending much of my holidays in the rural areas where I witnessed the problems farmers were facing: a lack of access to financial products such as loans and insurance, a loss of crops due to pests, diseases and natural disasters,” he said.

“Tafadzwa had a solution to a problem I had experienced as I was growing up and I saw it fit as a foundation for my journey to pursue my vision. We were already friends and I knew what he was capable of and I knew we could solve this problem together, and improve farmers’ lives and our economy at large.”

Nhunhama said working as a team of students in the start-up is helpful because, with their different skill sets, they can achieve their goals “faster, more easily and effectively”.

For him, his degree in business studies and computer science helped him to understand the theory of business and how to integrate information technology within business.

“More so, with the difficult courses from the maths department [the lecturers] have allowed me to have critical and computational thinking. Recently, I represented the University of Zimbabwe in the Texas Christian University’s values and venture competition – being the only participant who was not from the United States.

“It is one of the opportunities that have been availed [to me] because of [pursuing] this degree and the venture. Above all, my degree enabled me to meet future business partners and friends.

“Some of [us] are already working together. It also helped me to be a major player in social entrepreneurship, as I am part of several organisations that deal with social impact such as the LEO club, an organisation under the Lions Club International which focuses on creating social entrepreneurs through charity and leadership exercises and the Melton Foundation, of which I am a fellow, just to mention a few.”

Ryan Katayi, Image provided

Making an impact

Rayan Katayi, a National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe, chemical engineering student, is the CEO and a co-founder of Farmhut Africa, which in 2020 won US$100,000 seed capital from the Hult Prize Foundation, a global business incubation organisation.

The Hult Prize is considered to be like the Nobel Prize for students, as it rewards impactful projects and helps young business leaders with training on how to set up sustainable organisations.

Annually, it runs an accelerator programme in which it selects for assistance start-ups run by university students, and Farmhut was part of the 2020 cohort and the only winner from Africa.

Katayi told University World News that his passion has been to provide contextual solutions to underserved communities that include farmers and small business, as they have been badly affected by COVID-19.

He also said he would not be job hunting after university as his work is already cut out for him.

The student helps to run Farmhut Africa, an agritech start-up, that helps with information disbursement and is an online marketplace, as well as the Kwingy e-commerce platform that provides retail tech for small businesses with logistics and payments facilitation.

“I envision a world where people use our technologies to better their livelihoods, earning more and making their daily operations cheaper,” he said.

“After I finish university, I will not look for a job. I am already making an impact with what I am doing. From here, it is all about scaling,” said Katayi.

He said that, through his higher education, he was able to self-actualise and met Kumbirai Tagwireyi, a computer science student from Midlands State University, Zimbabwe, and Munyaradzi Makosa, a chemical engineering student from the National University of Science and Technology. The three became the co-founders of the company.

“However, a lot of changes are needed in our higher education to ensure that there is an ecosystem created around start-ups which is helpful to entrepreneurs to manage the earlier stages of their businesses,” said Katayi.