For most people studying for an MBA is tough enough. But Tom Vanneste (MBA2016) has used his two years at London Business School to do all he can to make his dream of developing weather stations for Africa a reality.
His business model has been honed through projects and competitions. Lectures have provided valuable business insights and tools. And he has harnessed the support and enthusiasm of professors, staff, classmates and alumni.
Today the company he founded with two partners and named Kukua – Swahili for “grow” - on the suggestion of classmate Jeff Osowski (MBA 2016), is up and running.
The origins for all this go back to 2010 when Vanneste – who grew up in Tanzania – was sailing with his friend Jan-Willem Smeenk. They wanted wind information to get ahead in their sailing races, but they couldn’t find any. And what’s more, there simply weren’t any weather stations to provide it.
They soon realised that wasn’t true only of Msasani Bay, it was true of Africa as a whole.
Where other parts of the world are dotted with some 66,334 weather stations, Africa has very few. That’s not only a problem for those sailing catamarans but, more importantly, also 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. However, as climate change disrupts the continent’s weather patterns, that approach is increasingly being challenged.
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.
After their discovery out on the water, Smeenk, who has a background in engineering and IT, set about creating a prototype weather station. The pair then set up an early version at Dar Es Salaam Yacht Club so that sailors could check the wind direction before races and analyse when the wind speed would pick up.
Vanneste began to realise that the low-cost, internet-connected weather station was more than a techie project: they started wondering if it was possible to install thousands of them across Africa.
Around this time there were so many questions to be answered and so many possibilities. Ollie Smeenk, the 22 year son of Jan-Willem Smeenk, got involved and helped to drive the operation of Kukua. Vanneste also describes him as being of “paramount importance” because he tirelessly attended funding pitches and helped Kukua secure critical early stage cashflow.
Vanneste, who was awarded the £20,000 Gallifrey Scholarship for Social Enterprise on joining LBS, says: “There had been this long, silent period where you have an idea but don’t do much with it, but LBS managed to accelerate it all and make it serious, getting us to the point where we are now.
“There’s this whole LBS risk-taking drive. Take a risk, we are here to help, let’s go have fun and let’s do it properly.”
His 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 plans for social enterprises. It is a US based competition and LBS is the hub for the Europe, Middle East and Africa. Vanneste recruited two classmates and made the most of adding their skills as a strategy consultant and insurance professional to the project.
The team’s mentor for the competition was Jonathan Crouch (EMBA2015) who has more than 20 years’ experience working in the agricultural sector. He provided feedback and suggestions and also helped them focus on key services that could help farmers, such as crop insurance.
They cold-called some 40 stakeholders for the competition – several of them LBS contacts who recognised the potential of the idea. While their team didn’t win the competition, Vanneste clearly learned a lot along the way and continued to revise his business model. He decided that it wasn’t the time to give up.
Alongside this progress, Vanneste set about developing new leads and harnessing the LBS network. At the same time, with the first data coming from its weather stations, Kukua approached Finnish forecasting company Foreca. Impressed, Foreca offered to crunch the data, feed it into their models, and thanks to algorithms that learn from the results, produce ever more accurate forecasts.
Vanneste has applied lessons from his MBA course to Kukua as he went along, and thinks that 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, Professor 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. In other words, they worked.
And when a group project came up as part of a course on pricing with instructor Oded Koenigsberg, Vanneste got his team of MBA2016 classmates to look at how much Kukua should charge farmers in Tanzania for weather information.
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, if they didn’t like them they could send them back. They also made their first commercial agreement selling 10 weather stations to an NGO active in Tanzania. But one month after those stations were installed, they hit a problem – the weather stations all failed and stopped sending data. It turned out the SIM provider had changed some settings without warning.
Every start up faces hurdles: what got them all through was their sense of mission. “The key thing is we are driven by impact not money,” says Vanneste. “If we were only driven by money I would have given up a long time ago. But we know that these smallholder farmers are suffering because of weather fluctuations, they have no information whatsoever, and we have this technology that can really help them. So we have to keep going.”
Despite all the hard work, Vanneste knows the project is only at the start – there are multiple directions it could take.
Entrepreneurship is an exciting journey full of ups and downs and for Vanneste and his team, their breakthrough moment came when Kukua secured funding in the amount of 100,000 euros from the Impact accelerator. Ollie Smeenk was determined to help get Kukua running. “We wrote a lengthy proposal then Ollie went to Rome and pitched Kukua to the judges. Thanks to Ollie’s great passion and knowledge, Kukua won the competition and received the funds that made everything we’ve now done possible,” says Vanneste.
Throughout his time at London Business School, Vanneste has made the most of the opportunities available. He singles out Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as having been especially supportive. “Tom is a one-man tour de force and has overcome various obstacles,” says Skinner. “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 work through problems.”
Vanneste will be stepping out of the company while he takes a post-MBA job with Boston Consulting Group. He is currently looking for an experienced professional to take over at Kukua as CEO. And while it will be painful to leave the venture he has started, he knows that this is going to be a long project. He will stay on the board and hopes to return.
Vanneste has left a symbol of his dream at London Business School. He has planted one of Kukua’s weather stations in the main courtyard and is asking the LBS network for any help in reaching out to people who can help the project grow.
“I think LBS should be proud of Kukua because without LBS we wouldn’t be here,” he says. “So I am highlighting LBS as a fantastic community and a force for social entrepreneurs but also trying to leverage it to help Kukua build out this concept which is absolutely crucial for Africa.”
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