At Tech City News, we’re always keen to shine a light on those who make up the UK’s thriving technology community.
This week, we spoke with Kenny Ewan, founder and CEO of WeFarm, an online peer-to-peer knowledge sharing platform.
He talked about the way in which technology can disrupt the agricultural industry and the support he’s received from mentors.
Tech vertical: AgTech
Staff count: 15 full-time employees
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Location: Based in London, with offices in Nairobi, Kampala and Lima
Q: Where did the idea for WeFarm come from?
The idea came from a lot of experience working with isolated communities and small-scale farmers in different countries. In 2009 I was part of the startup team with Claire Rhodes for a new NGO (Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation), based in the UK but working with small-scale farmers around the world. Claire and I put our experiences and ideas together and designed what would become WeFarm sitting around a kitchen table!
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We saw lots of common challenges being faced by the farmers we worked with and lots of grassroots solutions being developed, but ideas rarely traveled. With WeFarm we wanted to tap into the massive potential of crowdsourcing knowledge and sharing ideas peer-to-peer… but for offline users. We were also determined to design something that challenged the status quo of endless top down information flow in NGO projects, that we felt was ultimately unscalable and unsustainable.
We piloted WeFarm as a project at CPF, and when we saw the amazing potential and the traction we were getting, we decided to launch it as an independent social enterprise in early 2015.
Q: What’s your background? What were you doing before?
I actually originally trained as an architect in my native Scotland before moving to Peru to support an NGO with basic engineering projects for a few months. Those few months turned into a job running the organisation across Latin America, and I ended up spending seven years there, specialising in working with indigenous communities and supporting local people in designing and implementing sustainable development projects.
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Q: What has been the most challenging part about setting up your company?
I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t lacked for challenges on our journey! We are one of the first startups ever to take a charity project to commercial VC funding. So not only are we developing a pioneering product, and trying to build huge growth with ‘offline’ users, we are doing so with a model that most people haven’t seen before.
Q: Have you had any mentors along the way, if so, what have they helped with?
We’ve been lucky enough to be supported by many great people, and we were part of the 2015 Wayra UK accelerator which brought us into constant contact with mentors and industry experts.
I’d pick out David Fogel as the biggest mentoring influence I’ve had since we launched. He’s helped us think about the metrics behind everything we do and what actually drives the business and our users. David and other mentors like Uri Gonda and James Lasbrey have always been very generous with their time.
Q: How can technology transform the agricultural industry?
It’s well known that we have some big challenges in agriculture, such as climate change and massive population growth, which mean that we have to find new ways to feed the world. It’s the small-scale farmers, who grow up to 70% of the world’s food, that often face the brunt of these challenges.
If we are able to connect these farmers and hear their voices, we can not only facilitate knowledge sharing that will help these farmers fight disease and solve basic problems, but also give the supply chain unique and valuable data that can help them start tackling these issues.
Q: What does it take to make a company successful?
A great team, perseverance, and a vision that can inspire people. The last two are definitely connected, as it takes a lot of work to get people to back new or challenging ideas. The early days of building WeFarm were a great lesson for me on how difficult it can be to get people to understand a vision and embrace a new approach – we were told we were crazy and that the idea would never work more times than I can remember!
But slowly, if you can keep testing and developing your ideas, you will get early adopters prepared to write about you, encourage you or join you. We now get (mostly) great feedback… often from some of the same people who told us we were crazy a few years ago and don’t remember meeting us!
Q: What are WeFarm’s long-term plans?
Over the next year, WeFarm aims to get over 1 million farmers sharing information and knowledge on our network in Kenya, Uganda and Peru. Over the next 5 years, we hope to continue building our user base exponentially and work with corporates, governments and NGOs to see how our data can help combat anything from supply chain wastage, to climate change, to the spreading of disease. There are 500 million smallholder farmers all over the world, so we still have a long way to go to connect them all!