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Emmastella Gakuo, cofounder of Savanna Circuit Tech

This blog comes from Emmastella Gakuo, cofounder of Savanna Circuit Tech and a trained journalist turned multiple-award-winning entrepreneur, maker, gender advocate, and woman in technology. Her business, Savanna Circuit, provides innovative cooling on transit solutions for value chains in East Africa. Emmastella won the $100,000 USD grand prize of the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020. She will present at Cisco’s Women Rock-IT event on November 19. Click here to pre-register for and watch this event.

“Never mourn the loss of a map. There remains a world to discover.”

This quote from author Vijay Fafat in The Ninth Pawn of White comforted me when I received an acceptance letter for my undergraduate. It may have been my moment of triumph, but then, I did not appreciate that I was a pioneer cohort in a recently chartered public university. At the time, I thought it would be better to be admitted into an older, nationally recognized university. But now, I know the challenges of being a pioneer shaped my entrepreneurship journey and general life perspective.

Stepping out of my comfort zone

Always inquisitive, I strived to challenge the status quo and add value when I arrived at university. I joined a science club that was full of engineers, computer scientists, developers, and statisticians. Undeterred, I found myself getting acquainted with technology terms and trends through the phenomenon of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which led me to a science project partnership with Percy Lemtukei.

Percy and my journey in research and innovation led directly to our founding of Savanna Circuit Technologies in 2017. An open innovation company that focused on prototyping our nine ideas centered on renewable energy, AI, geomapping, and waste management. Soon after, we fabricated and 3D-printed our first minimum viable products. We self-funded our first prototype through family investments and then co-invested the rest of our prototypes through local government youth support programs.

Finding our groove

Over a six-month period, Savanna Circuit Technologies piloted a data collection tool which we placed in local dairies. We then launched the first hardware MVP to a focus group, which led to two product and business model trial periods in three different regions in Kenya. After six product and design iterations, we went commercial in 2019.

But since many of our ideas required mass production for scale and impact, we decided to pursue one key issue that our target communities faced and leverage on that prototype for a working solution. Our startup was sector agnostic, or simply open innovation and prototyping only, which meant we had to pivot fast to focus on one problem.

As Savanna Circuit moved to redirect our energies, we pinpointed gaps within the agricultural sector that lacked cold chain systems distribution that led to post harvest losses, like milk spillage and spoilage. We found that many dairy farmers faced management and payment challenges. As much as 40 percent of produce is lost before it reaches coop processing points for value addition and distribution. The majority of which are milk transporters that use animal transportation or inefficiently carry the milk on their backs. This, paired with a lack of a cold storage infrastructure tailored to small holders, can equate to a loss of profit and lead to business failure.

That’s when Percy and I really began pursuing a cold chain solution that focused on distribution, quality control, and delivery of fresh produce.

From this progressive pivot, we invented a hardware and software solution, MaziwaPlus Prechiller and M+ Dairy Management Systems. And we began to manufacture and distribute last-mile, non-refrigerant, solar-powered milk chillers that could be placed on any means of transportation – from motorbikes to trucks to cut post-harvest losses.

Stabilizing women in dairy

Emmastella with one of Savanna Circuit Tech’s solar milk chillers

Through further research, we learned that despite progress in Kenya’s dairy production, many women in the dairy industry are not given the same opportunity for earnings and investments, even though they are often a major source of labor and dairy consumption. So, to ensure ease of use for both genders, we sought to integrate human-centered design in our chillers. Whether stationery or mobile, the chiller collects and analyzes data and recognizes women producers and distributors in the platform.

Additionally, our new platform app could work in tandem with the chillers to provide traceability of milk, from farm to processing, while capturing the source and quality of milk. This app allows field agents and women producers to easily collect payments for delivered milk and access the credit facility, based on our AI-enabled credit scoring feature. This app turned the tide of inequality by recognizing women through an official database.

Through coop operations, we found that we could better reach producers who needed our custom capacity chillers, depending on their production volumes, so they could start to cut losses and provide real-time data, employment, and improved incomes.

Learning my strengths

Finding my voice as a maker among engineers and developers has allowed Percy and I to spot talent, build exceptional teams, and magnify capabilities. Our passion drives us to champion tailored local solutions for local problems with a global perspective.

Through our work, we have extensively placed women in lead positions within Savanna Circuit – not because of their gender – but because of their skill, adaptability, wit, and patience for startup growth. We are slowly and steadily finding firm ground.

This upward trajectory was further accelerated when Savanna Circuit was named the 2020 Grand Prize Winner of the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge. This funding and networking opportunity provided our business with a complete, state-of-the-art, mobile chiller manufacturing facility. This new production facility gives us the chance to standardize our manufactured equipment, leveraging Savanna Circuit into market competitiveness. We can now also hire in new talent for production and business development and allow us partner and reach more dairy production zones. This last added capability allows progress for inclusion of women and youth in the value chain through a sustainable chill on-the-go solution with data collection and management tool.

Through Savanna Circuit’s work merging manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and agricultural activities, we have gained agricultural investment and empowered women with countless other benefits that trickle further into local communities. We continue to push boundaries with technology, allow inclusion of global communities and advancement of environmentally sustainable growth. We encourage the creation of more space for more women to have a seat at the table.

Emmastella will present at Cisco’s online Women Rock-IT event on November 19. Pre-register to watch this event.

Do you have a breakthrough idea like Emmastella’s? The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 is now accepting applications through January 29, 2021. The Challenge offers $1 million USD in cash prizes to early-stage technology entrepreneurs solving the world’s social and environmental problems. Learn more and apply