Building a robust agricultural system in Africa through technology

A conversation with MEST Africa Challenge Community Vote Winner, Debo Engineering.

he MEST Africa Challenge is Africa’s biggest tech startup pitch competition offering entrepreneurs and young businesses the opportunity of a lifetime; $50,000 in funding, a space in one of MEST’s Hubs, support from MEST’s Portfolio team, and amazing prizes from a diverse pool of ecosystem partners.

This year, the Challenge held riveting country-level competition over three months, which featured over seventy-five startups from Ethiopia, Kenya, Côte D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa.

For the live finale, each of the nine-country winners pitched in front of leading tech executives and entrepreneurs on the continent including MEST’s very own CEO and founder — Jorn Lyseggen, Senior Director for Software Partnerships at Microsoft — Chris Lwanga, the Founding Principal of Imaginable Futures — Teresa Mbagaya, and Partner of TLcom Capital — Andreata Muforo.

Debo Engineering won the first Community Choice Vote joining the MEST Community and receiving access to its perks.

In their first-ever interview with MEST since winning, the founders of Debo Engineering share their experience in the competition and how they are helping to build a more robust agricultural system in Africa.

Debo Engineering founders: Boaz Birhanu Tullu (right) and Jermia Bayisa Lulu (left)

Tell us a little about yourself and Debo Engineering

Debo engineering is a startup technology company that uses recently emerging technology such as ML, IoT, IP, WSN, Data Science, mobile computing, web, and related technologies to solve critical problems in Africa, especially Agriculture.

It was founded by two young visionary engineers Boaz Birhanu Tullu (Electrical and Computer Engineering and MSc in Computer Engineering) and Jermia Bayisa Lulu (BSc in Computer Science, Civil Engineering, and MSc in Computer Networking and MA in Project Management and Finance) from Jimma university.

A customer’s field of corn. Photo credit: Boaz Berhanu

What inspired you to start your business?

While we were in school, Boaz and I had been thinking about starting a business and we finally decided to use recently emerging technologies that we were learning about to solve the most challenging agriculture problem for Africans — detection, monitoring, and preventing plant diseases.

How do you typically start your day?

A typical day at Debo Engineering starts with team prayer and then we deal with the urgent tasks on our docket, before moving on to other tasks on schedule for the day. We also spend a bit of time responding to customer requests and checking responses from our social media adverts.

We usually have a short meeting at lunchtime and then we evaluate the day’s work at the close of the day while setting the agenda for the following day.

What motivated you to apply for the MEST Africa Challenge?

We applied because we believed that the MEST Africa Challenge would give us validation for our efforts and provide a great opportunity to meet investors, supporters, and potential advisors.

Winning the challenge would also potentially facilitate our entry into other African markets through the $50,000 funding prize.

Were you expecting to win or to come this far?

Yes, we were. We knew that our disruptive, innovative, and problem-solving service is very important for Africa’s agriculture sector and food security.

How did you feel when you heard your name called as the winner of the Community Choice Vote?

We were really happy and excited. There was a lot of shouting and cheers back at the office but we were really hoping to win the overall prize too.

What was it like to be pitching in the finale, especially considering it was virtual?

It was a unique experience, but we faced a few challenges with internet connectivity. We didn’t have control over the slide deck which was very different for us and took some getting used to as well.

How has the COVID — 19 pandemic affected your business?

Covid-19 affected our business greatly. Debo Engineering has multiple sources of income that were negatively affected by the pandemic. Even having our team in different places, due to the lockdown, was an adjustment that did impact our business.

What are your plans now that you’ve won?

We plan to introduce new features to our existing system and scale up our service to Africa and beyond.

How has your life changed after winning?

Winning brought us a lot of press coverage which has been great for business — it has led to people and organizations reaching out to us for our services.

From Nigeria, we also had an investor reach out, we’ve met and are now negotiating the terms of the agreement.

As co-founders, tell us a bit about your leadership style and what you think are the key elements to succeeding as an entrepreneur?

We believe in transformational leadership and use this philosophy at Debo Engineering. When it comes to succeeding as an entrepreneur, we say; Don’t quit at any cost, work hard, and build a strong team spirit.

What would you say to young entrepreneurs looking up to you?

Try your best to start your own business by thinking about what Africa needs most and developing solutions for those problems.

Read about the MEST Africa Challenge2020 Finale here.

About the MEST Africa Challenge

Now in its third year, the MEST Africa Challenge is an Africa-wide tech startup pitch competition offering up to $50,000 in equity investment and a chance to join MEST’s hub and start-up community of talented entrepreneurs as they build and scale successful businesses that add value to African economies. It has become an establishment in the start-up technology industry, giving an unprecedented global platform to hundreds of local tech entrepreneurs in Africa. This year, the Challenge expanded from five markets to nine, embracing early-stage companies in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, Sénégal, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, and providing the opportunity for the Challenge organizers — MEST and lead partner — Microsoft, together with other ecosystem partners the opportunity to support even more startups through funding and resources.

The largest Africa-wide technology entrepreneur training program, internal seed fund, and network of hubs offering incubation for startups: www.meltwater.org