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Bless the rains down in Africa

19 Dec 2016

In 2010, Tom Vanneste MBA2016 was sailing in Msasani Bay, Tanzania with his friend Jan-Willem Smeenk and Smeenk’s son, Ollie. They wanted wind information to get ahead in their sailing races but couldn’t find any – because there simply weren’t any weather stations to provide it. They soon realised that wasn’t just true of Msasani Bay, it was true of Africa as a whole.

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Vanneste found that much of the world was dotted with some 66,334 weather stations, but that Africa’s share was negligible. And that’s a problem not just for those sailing catamarans but, most importantly, for the continent’s farmers. In the absence of weather data, they’ve relied on their traditional knowledge of rainy seasons and dry seasons to secure their crops and their livelihoods, but as climate change disrupts the continent’s weather patterns this ancient approach has been challenged. A report from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa talks about “failed seasons” and says that vital food producers are being “overwhelmed by the pace and severity of climate change”.

Africa’s missing data

Since that sailing trip Vanneste, who grew up in Tanzania, has used two years at London Business School to do all he can to make his dream of closing the weather station ‘gap’ in Africa a reality.

Today the company Vanneste founded with two partners and named Kukua – Swahili for ‘grow’ – on the suggestion of classmate Jeff Osowski MBA2016, is up and running, with almost 100 weather stations in place or being installed. His business model has been honed through projects and competitions. Lectures have provided valuable business insights and tools. And he’s harnessed the support of LBS professors, staff and alumni.

The company has won numerous awards, including the €100,000 EU Impact Accelerator Award 2015 and the €15,000 I WILL award from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Having been successful with an EU grant application, Kukua has also approached USAID and DFID for funding. It’s a huge achievement, but Vanneste knows there’s a lot more to do before that dream born on the glittering blue waters of Msasani Bay comes true.

Weather warning

Vanneste puts the lack of weather data in Africa down to a combination of factors: existing weather stations haven’t been maintained; governments haven’t made them a priority; and donors haven’t had a consistent enough plan to make an impact. In India, annually hit by monsoons, the government has invested in weather stations so that people can take out crop insurance and guard against extreme weather events. Similarly, in China it has been government policy to increase weather stations in the past ten to 15 years. Meanwhile, things have been getting worse for Africa – in the 1980s there were more than 2,000 weather stations, but in sub-Saharan Africa today there are just 500 in operation – eight times fewer than the United Nations recommends for the region.

Tech inspiration

After their discovery out on the water, Jan-Willem and Ollie Smeenk, who have backgrounds in engineering and IT, set about creating a prototype weather station that was internet-connected, but also affordable. They then set up an early version at Dar es Salaam Yacht Club so sailors could check the wind conditions.

Realising that the low-cost, internet-connected weather station was more than a local techie’s project, Vanneste wondered if it was possible to install thousands of these weather stat ions across Africa.

He had been working as deputy director of a hospital for the disabled, the CCBRT, in Dar es Salaam, which was founded by his parents and treats 100,000 people a year on an innovative financial model using private clinic funds to fund treatment for the poor. When he left that job for the Vodafone Foundation in 2013 and then Vodacom M-Pesa in 2014, he mentioned his weather station idea to them. They were enthusiastic, but it was only when Vanneste started his MBA at LBS that the project blossomed.

The power of peers

“There had been this long, silent period where you have an idea but don’t do much with it,” says Vanneste, who was awarded the Gallifrey Scholarship for Social Enterprise on joining LBS, something he says was a great help towards financing his MBA. “But LBS accelerated it all and got us to the point where we are now.

“I am a very conservative guy but found myself surrounded by people whose backgrounds were entrepreneurial – guys my age who had set up companies worth millions of dollars and sold them. There’s this whole LBS risk-taking drive. Take a risk, we are here to help, let’s have fun and do it properly.”

Vanneste’s first step was to enter the idea into the Global Social Venture Competition, which gives MBAs from around the world the opportunity to present their business who need data on their rigs. Another, Jérôme Albou EMBAG2016, CTIO of Tigo in Tanzania, and now a Kukua board member, told them his company struggles to obtain accurate weather information for its own M-Farming services. Kukua is now working with telecom tower operators who provide secure locations for its weather stations.

The pivotal moment

The team didn’t win the competition, but learned a lot. Should Kukua be selling weather stations, or data that could be useful to smallholder farmers, scientists, trading houses and hedge funds? After the competition, Vanneste’s two LBS classmates went off to other ventures. “It would have been the ideal time to step out,” he recalls. “We hadn’t committed any financial resources and we’d given it a try.”

But it wasn’t time to give up. The team submitted a lengthy proposal to the European Union’s Impact Accelerator programme for digital companies using Fiware and mobile technologies and 22-year-old Ollie Smeenk went to Rome to make a passionate pitch. It worked. He secured an award of €100,000, which catapulted Kukua to its next phase.

Find people who believe in you

Vanneste returned to the LBS network. Introductions effected by Miemie Strydom MBA2016 at the School’s Africa Business Summit led to the American entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Carr, who is investing in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The Park was immediately interested, and Vanneste put two weather stations in a suitcase and handed them over.

Kukua approached Finnish forecasting company Foreca with the new weather stat ion data. Impressed, Foreca offered to crunch the data, feed it into its models and, thanks to algorithms that learn from the results, produce ever more accurate forecasts. Then, through Henry Leventis MBA2016, Vanneste connected with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), one of the world’s leading research organisations tackling hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa. IITA is now a major partner, supporting a project in Nigeria and backing prospective projects in Ghana and Tanzania.

Learn by doing

Vanneste has applied lessons from his MBA to Kukua and thinks having a side project is a great way of making the most of the learning experience. In the Data, Models and Decisions course, for example, Dr Vasiliki Kostami described how to conduct ‘null-hypothesis’ testing – a way to statistically determine whether two datasets are the same or not. Vanneste used the method to test whether five different weather stations in the same location were all reporting ‘similar’ data. Thousands of data points showed that with a confidence of 99 per cent the means of each station were the same. They worked.

Meanwhile, in the strategy course Professor Costas Markides told students about his ‘Who-What-How’ model of strategic innovation. With Osowski, Vanneste worked out who their customers were, what products they wanted to offer them, and how they were going to do it. They wrote it up for their class assignment. And when a group project came up as part of a course on pricing with faculty member Dr Oded Koenigsberg, Vanneste got his team of MBA2016 classmates Omar Alvi, Francisco Montenegro, Christof Savoye and Fabian Zeyen to look at how much Kukua should charge farmers in Tanzania for weather information. The team saw an opportunity to profitably roll out a network of weather stations by targeting ‘bottom of the pyramid’ smallholder farmers, and operating weather stations for commercial farmers as a loss leader.

Find a way through

Beyond the classroom, Kukua sent its prototypes to several organisations for free, on the basis that if people liked them they could discuss a price, or send them back. They also made their first commercial agreement selling ten weather stations to an international NGO in Tanzania. But a month after they were installed, they hit a problem – the stations stopped sending data. It turned out the SIM provider had suddenly changed settings without warning. It was the kind of hurdle every startup faces and Vanneste says the team’s sense of mission got them through this and other challenges.

He knows the project could still take multiple directions. Kukua could partner with an existing agri-platform that sends farmers information for a fraction of a dollar per text, or develop its own. It would then need to work out what kind of information African farmers wanted and how to receive it – forecasts, farming advice, even a chat group.

LBS peers are still involved. Raymond Ciabattoni MBA2016 is researching crop insurance. Mark Hays MBA2017 has been forming l inks with hedge funds and commodity traders in cocoa and coffee. And Adam Back MBA2016 has played a key part in developing a partnership with an agricultural machinery company in Rwanda.

Kukua now has project concepts for Ivory Coast, Ghana, Rwanda and Tanzania requiring €1.3m to fund – but the bank balance is down to a few thousand Euros. “We’ve done very little and everything is ahead of us,” says Vanneste. “But we hope that by installing thousands of stations we will catalyse enormous innovation.”

A long-term goal

LBS’s executive director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jeff Skinner, says: “Tom is a one-man tour de force and has overcome various obstacles. He gathers the right people around him. It’s not all been happy. He loves what he’s doing, but I have seen torture on his face as well. We’ve been able to give him advice and we know some great professionals who have been able to help him through problems.”

Kukua has become the largest weather station operator in Africa, with 80 weather stations, and it is seeking funding for 1,500. Vanneste is now stepping aside while he takes a post-MBA job with Boston Consulting Group in Johannesburg. Though he will stay involved, he has recruited a professional CEO, Micha van Winkelhof, who is leading Kukua through its Series A round.

Before Vanneste goes – and before he leaves LBS – he is looking to make a final push for his dream. With the help of Focko Imhorst MBA2016, he has planted one of Kukua’s weather stations in the quad at LBS: “I think LBS can be proud of what it has done to support a potentially transformational project,” he says.


Weather comes into every aspect of a farmer’s work – when to plant, when to harvest. For example, if a farmer is dry planting, putting the seed in the ground ahead of the rains, then the rains need to come within one or two weeks of planting or all the seeds will be lost. Conversely, when applying fertiliser or pesticide it has to be dry or there’s no point doing it. And if you are harvesting maize you want no rain for the previous five days and none for the next week, so the crop can dry in the sun.

In the absence of weather information, African farmers have relied on their traditional knowledge of weather patterns, but in the past ten years or so this knowledge has become compromised by global warming and the disruption of weather patterns. Scientists at IITA say that the farmers they work with readily acknowledge that weather patterns are changing and are having a big effect on their lives. They are not sure when to plant and they are worried about famine.

Kukua wants to work out how best to support these farmers to become more resilient to climate change. It may be through weather forecasts combined with farming advice – research shows that farmers who have hyper-local weather forecasts backed by agronomic advice increase their income by between ten and 82 per cent. Or it may be through crop insurance, itself only possible when you have weather data. So, even if the crop is lost, Kukua helps the farmer.