Maps for more connections

Kwaku Twum

Entrepreneur uses GIS technology to connect farmers and food manufacturers

Kwaku Twum has always been interested in food systems. Growing up in Abetifi, Ghana, a suburb of the capital, Accra, he was fascinated by the work of his mother. She bought tomatoes from a wholesaler and sold them at a market near their home. He would help sell the tomatoes on Saturdays and some Sundays after church.

He developed a relationship with other vendors in the market. They used to package food for him to take back to the boarding school where he was doing his high school. In his teen years, he heard farmers and vendors complaining about feeling cheated. Traveling to farms with his mother, he learned about problems with post-harvest losses, which forced them to sell their produce at low prices. “It was quite an interesting experience for me. I’ve always loved the dynamics in food environments.”

Now, he is using his background in geographic information systems (GIS) — computer systems for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface — to build a business that connects small-scale farmers with food processing companies. He co-founded Mapkot Technologies to bridge information gaps between growers and manufacturers. Its flagship offering, Mapmate, is a subscription-based GIS product that helps food manufacturers understand farmers. A patent application for the product is in process, Twum said.

Mapkot has a pilot program underway in Ghana with two food manufacturers. The first is APSC, a company that processes ginger and chilies that it buys from small-scale farmers. The second firm is SweetLife Group — a company that uses organic berries to make fruit powder, tablets, candy, and other products. To date, Mapkot has profiled 750 farmers who are getting support from APSC. Twum hopes to more than triple the number of farmers in the program to 2,500 this year.

At the same time, he is doing doctoral studies at the University of Waterloo in southern Ontario. He won $5,000 in seed capital for Mapkot from Velocity, a UW-affiliated new business accelerator, in Velocity’s fall 2023 pitch competition. Twum’s primary interest during his school days was technology. “The one area that excited me more was information systems that are relatable.” Some of Accra’s suburbs were informal communities that had frequent problems with people being displaced due to flooding. “Personally, we had issues with displacements because of floods.”

That experience made him want to learn the root causes of the problems. He read whatever he could on the issue, and then did his undergraduate studies in human settlement planning. A course in geographic information systems sparked his interest in learning how this could be applied to flooding issues where he lived. His major project took him to slums facing similar flooding challenges and led to a published paper on the topic. He wanted his findings to be “known to the whole world.” Almost 40 researchers in Africa, Asia, and America have cited his work.

For his master’s studies, he decided to explore GIS applications further. He came back to his passion for food, and how GIS can support food systems in urban areas. He used GIS to model food stress areas in Accra. These are similar to so-called food deserts in North America, neighborhoods without easy access to grocery stores.

High land prices made it difficult for farmers to grow crops, and lack of access to stores resulted in high food prices. He found a direct relationship between physical access and economic access to food. Those findings led him towards a professional career in using GIS to support food companies.

Kwaku Twum says the biblical call to love your neighbor as yourself “drives my enthusiasm for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Mapkot started in 2019 as a technology consulting firm, doing information technology projects for various firms. Twum’s earlier research work was in the cocoa sector while working with Koa, a Swiss-Ghana company that upcycles cocoa pulp waste into meaningful products like fresh juice and concentrate powder. The word Koa means impact. “Working with Koa in the cocoa sector was eye-opening for me,” he said, citing issues of deforestation and child labor within that industry.

As part of his work with Koa, Twum developed a blockchain, traceable platform so that payments to farmers are tracked, traced, and monitored in real time. “For the first time, in the cocoa system, we challenged that problem of paying farmers right.” Other companies have expressed interest in adopting the system. Twum’s faith is a key motivator for how he approaches business. “I am unapologetically a Christian,” he said. I am not shy about it.”

That can be difficult for a businessperson, even in a country where over 70 percent of the population is Christian, he said. “There are some things that you can’t do, there are some areas you can’t go, there are some activities that you can’t engage in.” Respecting people and encouraging them in the challenges they face is one of Twum’s core values. But in some areas, people encourage violent ways of getting what they want, he said. “For me, how you treat people matters a lot.”

At one point, he ended a consulting engagement due to a clash of values. A client refused to either compensate workers for extra hours or to provide overnight shelter for workers who otherwise needed to travel long distances daily to and from their work site. Reflecting on that experience, he thinks about the biblical teaching to love your neighbor as yourself. “It makes me always have that in the back of my mind. It drives my enthusiasm for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Twum admits that the combination of graduate studies and working on a startup thousands of miles away can lead to sleepless nights and weekend work. However, he believes the synergies between his university courses and the business pilot provide an opportunity to leverage both activities. “For me, it’s about the passion. What drives me is the passion for what I do.”

Mapkot’s other co-founder, Daniel Buston, has quarterly in-person meetings with APSC about its pilot. The company also sends monthly feedback reports and has a 24-hour virtual assistance team. Twum may go back to Ghana once or twice a year during his studies. “I need to get approval from my wife, too.” Mapkot’s work is supported by 45 commissioned “volunteers” who have an understanding of technology in each of the communities where it enrolls farmers. “Culture is one of the drivers of our solution.”

The volunteers, who act as the company’s “eyes on the ground,” are trained in information technology skills, including data analysis. “We go deeper on the ground to understand the real issue,” Twum said in describing the firm’s competitive advantage. Mapkot has social enterprise as well as profit goals, Twum says. The firm wants to use its platform to bridge gaps in under-privileged communities. Its work with volunteers has already convinced a woman who was a high school dropout to enroll in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program. The company is developing a new product called Mapforms. That data collection tool will provide flexible data collection to help companies leverage data and get better insights from that data.

The most well-known forms products, such as Google or Microsoft Forms, require Internet access and focus on particular data fields, he said. Farmers who can’t read and write struggle to share relevant insights. Mapkot’s new product hopes to overcome these problems and be language agnostic, incorporating voice and image recording. Its third product, Mapmove, helps with vehicle tracking and trip monitoring. It can be used to request or track vehicles, a sort of digital replacement for a human dispatcher. The product was piloted in 2023, and Mapkot is now working to incorporate improved trackers.

Food processors pay a monthly or annual fee based on the number of farmers they get access to using Mapkot’s system.
The Mapmate product has valuable applications for many crop areas, including the cocoa sector, he said. The predictability of cocoa yields is a major problem, with little to support farmers in collecting data. Demand for cocoa often outpaces demand. There is never enough pulp produced to meet processors’ needs, he said.

Farmers are enrolled in the Mapmate system by trained volunteers and food manufacturer extension officers. Profiles are completed in English. The company plans to add French profiles as well. That will assist its plans to expand to the Ivory Coast, where French is the official language, and to other countries where both languages are used. The Mapmate product works both offline and online. Information can be added through a phone or a tablet. Data and photos taken synch to a database once the user gets to an area where internet access is available.

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