We run out of drinking water one afternoon at our house on the 300-hectare farm. The region's power grid has been down for over a day. Our water tanks have run dry. It is 38 degrees Celsius, and the African summer sun is high in the sky. This happened on the first week of my month-long stay with our smallholder farmers in Moamba, Mozambique. It also sets the tone for what to expect. This is Africa. Nothing is easy.
Rewinding back five weeks, our first cohort of smallholder farmers were finishing trial runs of our product, InGrower App. We got lots of feedback. More inputs here. Move the box there. The usual pointing out the obvious. Users can tell you what's wrong, but they cannot tell you what to build. As we're an early stage startup that is still finding a product-market fit, we desperately need to figure out the latter. It is then that I see the only way to do this is for me to be in the same room as our users. And that is how I found myself living with our users on a chicken farm in Moamba.
One of the first questions that I asked my current co-founder when he pitched the InGrower idea to me was – do farmers in Mozambique use smartphones? I am now able to answer my own question. While living there, power and water often go out (though not usually at the same time), but the 3G mobile internet is always on. So what do you do when there is no power or water, and it's too hot to do anything? You browse Facebook on your $30 Android smartphone, like everybody else.
Of our first 14 trial users, two are heavy users of our product. These power users have been regular Facebook users for more than three years. They are used to navigating a mobile user interface, and understand the benefits of having data online. These are the users that we want as our initial champions for the app.
The farm is 10 km away from Moamba village. We often roar into the village sitting on the back of a tractor.
This is Moamba market:
This is my bed during my stay at the farm:
I specifically asked the manager before arriving to help me set up a mosquito net. Malaria is a real danger here, especially at the height of summer in January, when I was present. But what do you know? There were few mosquitoes in the house. Instead, I had giant bugs of all shapes and forms visiting me every night. Thank god I had the net!
I ate with the staff and farmers at the house. We all chipped in with US$20 per person each month. That was the budget for a month of groceries for them. Average monthly salary is US$100 per month in the country. A piece of bread cost about $0.15 and a whole chicken was $4 at the market. This was our typical lunch at the house:
There was a limit of two small pieces of meat per person for every meal when there was anything to eat at all. There were a couple of days when I had only a piece of bread and some crackers all day. I don’t know how the other guys who actually had to do physical labour managed to work on an empty stomach.
Sometimes, some of the guys went fishing or picked coconuts, and then our housekeeper would make something special.
At other times, I snuck out to the village and had a shameless feast. All of this grilled sausage and food is $6 and enough to serve four people:
A typical day goes like this for the chicken farmers of Moamba. They come in from the village at 7am. Tend to their chicken house. Breakfast at 10am. Back to their chicken house. Lunch at 2pm. By then, the sun and summer heat is in full blast. They chill in the staff house until 5pm, then head home back to the village.
I came to Moamba to do product development. In addition to all the learning and understanding that I received, the experience itself has been very special. Hanging out in the afternoon with the merry gang, and with the cool breeze blowing against your face. Riding into the village on a tractor. Brushing my teeth every evening out in the open, under the milky way. Nothing is easy here. But there's a certain romance in expecting the unexpected in daily life in Mozambique.
P.S. the title of this post is a play on Craig Mod’s article.