When Dr Mitslal Kifleyesus-Matschie returned to her country Ethiopia in 2007, she went with the aim to contribute to poverty eradication in rural areas by creating a company that allowed farmers to enter the 21st century market.
By Annika Burgess
However, bridging the centuries-long knowledge gap wasn’t going to be easy. “The requirements of the 21st century are impossible to apply if you’ve been working a certain way for 300 years,” Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie said of her initial concerns. But, she had a plan: “I said, ‘I’ll do it with technology.’ We needed an instrument and the best instrument was ICT.”
Since then, her company Ecopia has been embracing developments in ICT to provide over 11,000 farmers with the knowledge and skills required to process and market organically certified products that can be sold locally and abroad. Today, 54 products from Ethiopia’s organic farmers are under the Ecopia label, which has impacted local economies and made traditional ecological farming methods more profitable.
“When you are producing things like jam and juice on your farm, at Ethiopian and European level, you need to fulfil certain quality control documentation to get the permission to sell products in the supermarket. Ethiopian farmers weren’t allowed to do that. The reason they weren’t allowed until recently to participate in the value chain was because they could not provide the data, the information that is needed for the inspections to be fulfilled,” Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie says.
“What the information technology did is give us an instrument, a very easy way to fill a gap of around 300 years within five- to-ten years. The farmers are now able to fulfil the requirements that are asked from the standards office.”
Due to advancements and increased uptake of technology, Ecopia has been able to build an extensive database that contains detailed information about ingredients, regions and processing techniques; serving as an electronic marketplace. Farmers initially provided this data to a call centre but soon moved to using computers and mobile devices.
The company also developed an online and mobile traceability system that provides consumers with product codes so they can trace the components right back to the farmers and find information on raw materials, time of harvesting, transportation, specific manufacturing conditions and delivery status of the products.
Furthermore, training has become a major factor in the growth of the company. “The training has become very easy because we have a beamer and pictures, and they understand it easily,” Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie says.
Ecopia trains farmers, students and local stakeholders not only in how to produce organic products in a way that fulfils international quality standards, but also in skills such as leadership and entrepreneurship. The aim is to empower rural farmers at the ‘base of the pyramid’ with the necessary skills and know-how. The company has also adopted a train the trainer approach, thus contributing to the sustainability of the programme.
“The most fascinating part of the development of Ecopia is not only that we transmitted this information to the farmers, but those farmers then provided information to the well-educated Ethiopians on how to conduct inspections,” Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie says.
“We needed an inspector to test the standard and certify that the food is clean, so it was our farmers who needed to train the Ethiopian government and authorities and show them that it is possible to create products that are fulfilling international rules and regulations.”
Due to the visual nature of the training programmes Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie says teaching positions are often given to the region’s deaf community.
“When one of the deaf women goes to train, all she needs is a beamer and a mobile. She may use a translator at times, but when it comes to answering questions she needs only to type the answer and show it on a mobile. This is huge for the self-confidence of a person, especially a deaf person who is outside the system and doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to earn a living.”
Ecopia’s goal is to provide opportunities for two million Ethiopian farmers, and it’s the company’s next steps Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie thinks will have the most significant impact. She is planning to develop an open source enterprise resource planning system (ERP) – a platform where farmers can easily communicate and access market information.
Farmers previously had to rely on Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie to inform them if supermarkets had increased their profit margins, but this is the kind of information that will now be readily available. Most importantly, free of charge.
“My intention now is to have everything open source. Ecopia will be willing to give the data for this system and farmers will have the right to verify – it’s the first of its kind in Africa.”
Dr Kifleyesus-Matschie is also in discussions with Airbus to use their satellite technology to track deliveries. “As an environmental company we want to be part of the Ethiopian green economy 2023 – complete green economy. So, we want to minimise our carbon footprint. As transportation contributes dramatically to carbon emissions, you need an efficient tracking system to measure your footprint, and for this you need to use satellites,” she says.
“Airbus is saying they have access and a database for this information that makes the application possible for the farmers. If we do this then we are really complete – the circle is finished. The ICT revolution has been done.”
Image by Ryan Kilpatrick