Sesi Technologies is working to tackle poverty and hunger by providing African farmers with affordable technology to help them increase productivity and reduce losses. Co-founder, Isaac Sesi, speaks about his passion for technology and the importance of encouraging more women and young people into the sector.
Sesi Technologies began as a university research project at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Isaac Sesi, an electrical engineer, was drafted in to help the new team develop a low-cost grain moisture meter, which he realised had the potential to be commercialised.
As an entrepreneur, you are passionate about inspiring others. What is the key lesson you have for those who might want to follow in your footsteps?
The most important lesson that I have for young people is that they really have to focus, stick to one thing and be persistent because success is not going to happen overnight. Young people today seem to be in a hurry and, if results don’t come soon enough, they just jump to the next thing – but then no good thing just happens right away. At one point, I was running three very different companies at the same time and I felt really burnt out; my focus was being split and progress on each business was slow. So I decided to focus solely on Sesi Technologies as I felt I had the skills and passion to really make it economically viable.
A World Economic Forum 2018 report on the gender gap highlights that only 22% of the world’s professionals working in artificial intelligence (AI) are women; it is likely that the proportion in Africa is far lower. Where does change need to happen to reduce this gap?
It has to start at school. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and AI should be integrated in school curriculums and young girls should be encouraged and incentivised to participate in these activities. When girls gain an interest in STEM and are shown the potential of AI, and the difference they can make in their communities by going into this field, then the decision to go into AI becomes organic and natural. When we do this, instead of waiting till women are grown before trying to get them into AI, we see more females in the field.
In Ghana, change is coming; it’s gradual but the educational service is developing a new curriculum which has a lot of STEM components. Things like AI are still not fully integrated yet but this change in direction is good for the future. Outside of the traditional educational system, we are seeing so many opportunities for young people who want to be involved in AI, so gradually more awareness is being created and hopefully, within a few years, we should have more women in the field.
My personal passion for STEM led me to co-found the Nsesa Foundation, a non-profit whose vision is to inspire an innovation revolution in Africa and to get young Africans solving problems using science and technology. Since 2013, our programmes have trained hundreds of students and have reached over 300,000 people across the world.
You were recently one of two finalists to receive the GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize in the agri-food sector. Why do you think your innovation inspired the panel?
I was up against some tough competition but I feel like the panel was inspired by our promise to leverage technology to end poverty and hunger because food is something that is fundamental. We are exploring innovative business models to make technology available to farmers at a cost they can afford, for example by allowing farmers to exchange grain for GrainMate instead of paying cash. We are also pioneering a local manufacturing industry which is creating jobs for young people, women, and youth.
CTA runs a similar competition with its Pitch AgriHack for young entrepreneurs. What do you feel are the value of these competitions, even if you don’t win the prize money?
The prize money is just a small part of what you could potentially get from these competitions because a lot of them are providing training and mentoring support, and are trying to connect the finalists to a network of people who can help them. The value you get from these things can’t be quantified and, if taken seriously, far exceeds the prize money you would get. For instance, the publicity alone translated into business for us. So my advice to participants is that they should not only focus on the prize money but should also take advantage of whatever other opportunities these competitions present.
You are a part of a new cadre of innovative young Africans leading change in transforming African agriculture. Nevertheless, your generation faces many pressing issues. How does this shape your vision for the future?
I feel like the challenges we face bring opportunities to make a difference and make change happen, so I see this as exciting. The constraints of trying to innovate in Africa are numerous and complex but these challenges will force young people to think about how we build things, how we develop solutions and how we build resilience into these solutions right from the start. We are taught to thrive, irrespective of the challenges, so this gives us the confidence to be able to face any obstacles that come our way and be confident that as Africans we can develop solutions to overcome them. It means more work, but what’s the fun if everything is rosy!