If you’ve heard anything about Nigeria lately, it’s probably about the Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapping 200 schoolgirls from a dormitory.
That crime has understandably dominated headlines. But Nigeria is a big country, and while Nigerians and the international community work to return the girls to their homes, elsewhere, life and business go on. Nigeria and Africa are home to more than just sad stories.
Among the goals of the Islamist militants is the banning of alcohol. But that didn’t faze American beer distributor Heineken, which recently reported stronger than expected sales in Nigeria. According to the Money Watch Africa blog, Heineken was benefiting from an economic boom in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africans having extra beer money may not be as compelling a story as a terrorist kidnapping, but in the long-term, economic development will have a massive effect on the lives of Africans and the world economy. The African boom has not gone unnoticed in the Route 1 corridor business community.
The Money Watch Africa blog is run by Larry Seruma of Nile Capital Management at Princeton Forrestal Village, a $42 million investment fund that focuses on Africa (U.S. 1, April 23). Seruma is a native of Uganda and spends months every year traveling the continent in search of investment opportunities. He could not be reached for comment on this story.
Nile Capital is not the only local firm involved in African business. Lekoil is a publicly traded oil exploration company listed on the London stock exchanges with a market cap of about $300 million. Lekoil — not to be confused with the Russian Lukoil — has its corporate headquarters on Main Street in Forrestal Village. The company recently moved out of a shared Regis office into its own space. It is involved in oil exploration off the coast of Nigeria and Namibia.
A Nassau Street-based company, SKC group, is working to improve agriculture on the continent by taking advantage of Africans’ love of cell phones. Uganda is a fertile country, with the ability to grow vast amounts of corn. However, its inefficient supply chain system means that 40 percent of every harvest never reaches the market. Buyers and farmers have a hard time finding one another, meaning that sometimes, farmers can’t sell their crops before they rot. SKC believes that a simple smartphone app could help African farmers solve this problem.
It’s an almost eye-rolling cliche when a smartphone app developer promises their technology will help change the world, only to unveil a platform for taking pictures of food. But SKC group can make a claim that its product is actually useful to people in the developing world. Alex Cardona, founder of SKC, developed an app called Grains Chain that brings logistics management — the kind that big American agribusiness uses — to the small-time African farmer with a load of grain to take to the market. The program is currently being used by a charity called the Joseph Initiative that supports African farmers by bringing their crops to the growing East African marketplace.
Grains Chains is one of several products that SKC has developed. Last year, Cardona, who is also a filmmaker, visited the granary where Joseph Initiative managers were using the app to find local farmers. The men, standing in a rustic shack, were using sophisticated software that years ago was only accessible to people in big business.
Cardona was amazed by how thoroughly the farmers adopted the mobile technology, even though many had never seen a computer in their lives. He recalled the “glimmer and light of hope” in the eyes of the farmers as they talked about how the software was making their lives better. “Technology is the future for Uganda,” he says. “When most people in the U.S. think of Africa, they think of starving children. But it really is not like that. It’s people filled with hope. They see their future in terms of technology.”
Currently Grains Chains allows users to track inventory, cash management, and purchasing. Cardona is working on adding mobile payments and other features to help farmers grow more food, measure the area of their fields, and estimate future crop yields.
Cardona grew up in Washington Heights, better known as Spanish Harlem, in New York. His father, a Colombian immigrant, was a shift supervisor at a plastic factory, and his mother was a housekeeper who also ran a transportation business. He graduated from the State University of New York at Albany, where he majored in Spanish Civilization, before earning an MBA in management information systems.
Cardona embarked on a globetrotting career for big consulting companies like Accenture, traveling the world doing systems integration work, creating advanced planning systems, and improving the efficiency of their logistics and supply chain systems. In 2013 Cardona joined two of his friends, Guarev Kohli and Gundeep Singh, to turn their skills towards social causes.
“I think we’re entering what Aaron Hurst calls the Purpose-Driven Economy,” Cardona says. “We are becoming more aware of our impacts to our planet from climate change, to consumption of water and we are becoming more aware of the need to apply technology, information, and data to solve a lot of these problems.”
Cardona is putting his skills to work in the American market, which he sees as having an entirely different set of social problems. In almost the reverse case of Uganda, there is little inefficiency in the grain market, with America meeting its own needs and still having much to export overseas. However, Cardona believes the cheap grain is responsible for many of the health problems that Americans face.
Cardona’s Farmbrain app is not aimed at the Monsantos of the world, but at small farmers who grow a lot of vegetables rather than enormous fields of corn. Like Grains Chains, Farmbrain helps farmers find places to sell their food, including directly to consumers.
Cardona says he found inefficiencies in the way the market is currently set up. It was possible for suppliers to see what farmers were selling, and at what prices, but they had to go through a cumbersome process of scrolling through PDF files to do it. With Farmbrain, farmers can post their crops and prices to the app, and anyone, including individual customers, can see it and make a purchase.
SKC, 252 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542; 917-371-6689; fax, Alex Cardona, founder. www.scknowledgeco.com.
Lekoil, 116 Village Boulevard, Suite 200, Princeton 08540; 609-945-0805. Lekan Akinyanmi, CEO.