Technology helps farmers weather the storm (or drought) via crop insurance

“Oko insured both drought and rainfall and that’s why I became a member,” Sékou Coulibaly, a cereal farmer in Mali, said via a translator. “The first year, the crop was very bad for us and Oko, because of the drought, helped compensate for the damage. I have to say that Oko is very good for the farmers in the region.”

Schwall, however, believed Oko could make an even greater impact. He signed up for the Microsoft for Startups AI 4 GOOD acceleration program and Founders Hub, which helps purpose-driven ventures in Israel advance their AI solutions to create positive social transformation. Graduates of the program receive technology, connections and grants to help bring startups’ impactful visions to life.

“We were very impressed with the leadership team and their passion for making a difference in people’s lives,” said Raz Bachar, general manager for Microsoft for Startups Israel. “While reviewing Oko’s application, we started to understand the size of the problem they were addressing and the potential impact they could have on the world. More than that, the excitement was tangible when the team spoke about their solution – we could hear the emotion in their voices and see the sparkle in their eyes. They are truly inspiring.”

For Oko, Microsoft Azure’s robust infrastructure and data tools helped the company improve its customer relationship management (CRM) platform and build machine learning algorithms to better analyze satellite weather data and reduce its costs in calculating its results. Additionally, the Microsoft program provided mentorship and training on how to measure impact, plus research and development funds.

“The benefit of the program really allowed us to scale up,” Schwall said. “We were able to migrate our (self-designed) platform to Azure without really having to change our infrastructure or resources. We’ve been able to go from helping 1,800 farmers to more than 10,000 farmers. And now, we have a program with UN Women in Mali. We realized that we had a limited number of women in our customer base and we want to bridge that gap.”

Mariam Doumbia, former country director and head of operations of Oko Mali, shows the maps and satellite data of rainfall in Mali at the start-up’s headquarters in Bamako. Photo by Nicolas Réméné.

Each season, Oko uses real-time satellite data and rainfall monitoring to determine how much rain is needed for a healthy harvest. If the rainfall drops below the thresholds, it automatically triggers a payment to the farmers.

“They don’t have to call us,” Schwall said. “Some of the farmers have asked us, ‘How do you know?’ We tell them on the app, ‘You suffered from a drought, click here to receive your money.’ There’s no risk of fraud.”

“It is very easy and I am super happy about their work as they provide us with critical information,” Moukoro said. “Oko is sending us information via text messages about the weather forecast. They tell us when we are going to miss rain and that information is shared with us all the time.”

If there is a drought, Schwall said that farmers use their payments to either buy new seeds for the next harvest or buy other goods they can sell in town, such as fuel. Because farmers are insured, now they can acquire microloans that help them invest further in their crops.

Even though Oko has made strong inroads in Mali and Uganda, there remains a large swath of farmers throughout Africa and other nations that Oko would like to support, as well as ensuring existing customers remain happy and engaged with the product. As climate change continues to become a major factor, Oko’s ability to react quickly and provide insurance for famers could have major impact.

“We still have things to prove,” Schwall said. “We still have the high cost of customer acquisition. We want to keep our farmers insured from season-to-season. We need them to believe it’s a good thing, so we need to validate the impact. We’d also like to grow internationally. We’d love to reach one million farmers by 2025. That’s our North Star. Hopefully we can prove that this operation is a valuable business model.”

For those farmers with their eyes to the sky and hands in the dirt, having some peace of mind that their work won’t result in a total loss if there are weather issues has been a major relief.

“Oko is doing great things for us,” Coulibaly said. “I am even doing some awareness to other farmers. The idea is amazing and they are helping farmers a lot.”