After pausing for a moment to decide how to respond, Adriana described one of the driving motivations for working on her Tanzanian-based startup, Imara Tech, as a frustration with the state of agricultural technology in Tanzania. Imara Tech is a manufacturing startup co-founded by Adriana Garties that makes maize threshing machines for local smallholder farmers.
“The basic technology that everyone has been using for threshing machines was invented in the late 18th century… but once you get a little farther out [from Tanzania’s cities], there’s almost no technology for the small farmers.” The current method used by farmers for threshing maize (separating the kernels from the rest of the plant) is piling cobs into a pile and hitting them with a stick; this process can span days. When farmers use Imara’s threshing machine, called the Multi-Crop Thresher (MCT), the process becomes 90x faster. Using conventional methods, it takes about three hours to thresh enough maize for fill a standard sized sack (100kgs), whereas the MCT can fill 30 sacks in one hour. The MCT is a machine with the stature of a cylindrical roaster you might see roasting chiles at a street food festival. Sporting wheels for portability, and a small engine on the side driving the internal mechanisms, farmers can easily transport the machine on their motorcycle and let it handle the brunt of the manual labor at their destination. To operate the MCT, one simply inserts maize into an opening at the top, and two opposing chutes expel separated kernels and cobs from the bottom. Imara’s website touts that if the MCT’s potential is fully realized, it could save 1.2B of the 1.35B hours Tanzanian smallholder farmers spend threshing each year.
It all started with an internship at Twende in Arusha, Tanzania. Twende is a social innovation center that is part makerspace, part education center for design and fabrication, and part incubator for startups that spawn from it. It was here that Adriana met Elliot, an MIT graduate who was in the later stages of development working on the MCT; she partnered with Elliot and a Tanzanian local, Alfred, to start Imara tech.
What was the transition from the U.S. to Tanzania like? Adriana acknowledged that it wasn’t as different as she had thought it would be. Arusha’s relatively large size and status as Tanzania’s hub for safaris and other tourism activities help make it feel like a modern city, although its infrastructure lags behind a modern U.S. city. One major point of adjustment for Adriana was learning the local language, Swahili. While an English-speaking visitor to Arusha would be able to get by without learning Swahili, Adriana has had to learn the language to be successful at her job, especially because all of Imara’s technicians only speak Swahili.
In addition to her frustration with the state of Tanzania’s agricultural technology, Adriana described her other primary motive for making this significant transition as how compelling this product is. “I could see there was a huge demand,” said Adriana. “When I went on some field tests, people were very excited about the machine… you could see immediately how much of a difference it could make and the hours that it could save.” Indeed, the 1.2B hours of potential savings is mind-boggling. If successful, Imara would also be providing Tanzanians this machine at a time in which global warming is already causing an inflection point in agriculture. As Earth’s climate changes, Tanzanian farmers’ ability to predict the start of the rainy season decreases.
As the success of a harvest depends in part on the reliability of the farmer’s predictions, the MCT also serves the purpose of giving farmers the tools to become more efficient in their responses to changing weather.
The market response that has only added to Adriana’s excitement. There is a massive and unfulfilled need in Tanzania’s market for a machine just like the MCT. Why, then, has this need not been met yet?
It’s complicated. Current threshing machines on the market similar to the MCT are mostly imported (often from China), which is incompatible with Tanzania’s rural agricultural economy. Demand for threshing machines only exists during harvesting time, and the timing and magnitude of that demand are highly inconsistent and fluctuate with the time of year (typically there are two harvests a year) and the weather. Contrast this with the nature of conventional high-volume manufacturing, where prediction of demand is imperative and the scale of international distribution increases a manufacturer’s inertia and resistance to market demand fluctuations. This mismatch between manufacturing and market demand is what Adriana considers the leading cause of Tanzanian farmers’ poor state of technology. In response, the hypothesis that Adriana and her co-founders have developed is that if a thresher is manufactured locally in Tanzania with a lean manufacturing process, a viable business model emerges that positively impacts local farmers and manufacturers. With this hypothesis, there exists no discrepancy between market demand and manufacturing. Adriana elucidated with an example: “I get an order from the sales team on Friday night [i.e. for 10-15 machines], and then [on] Saturday morning I go out and buy all of the materials… Through the next week, we make those 10 or 15 machines, and by next Friday, they’re ready. That means that we don’t end up with a lot of stock sitting around in a warehouse somewhere.” She added that another benefit is the adaptability to quick design change requests.
Adriana emphasized that a critical component of Imara’s success is their distributed manufacturing network comprised entirely of local manufacturers. Throughout Tanzania there is an abundance of small-scale manufacturers, and Imara intends to make full use of this resource. For example, they utilized six different workshops during their last manufacturing cycle. In fact, Imara only has four fabricators in-house - and that is an intentional decision. Rather than oscillating through hiring and letting go of seasonal employees to meet demands, Imara simply contracts as many workshops as it needs.
Adriana explained that there’s an unnecessary negative connotation with utilizing the local manufacturers. “There’s a misconception that you get something built by a local technician and it won’t come out good - or they can build one of them, but they can’t do it repeatedly… And I think that’s just not true; it’s just that no one has really tried to get high quality machinery with this type of manufacturing.” It is from this unfortunate reality that Adriana draws her determination to challenge Tanzania’s status quo. She is set out to prove that not only is it possible to produce high quality machinery with these local manufacturers, but that it can be done in a way that is financially sustainable for everyone.
Now that Imara has grown beyond just Adriana and her co-founders, a new internal motivation has grown along with it: the responsibility to their (seven) employees in ensuring that the company is healthy and growing. That’s not a simple task for any early-stage startup; Adriana characterized the feeling as, “…climbing a ladder and building it ahead of you one step at a time.”
As Imara’s CTO, Adriana must ensure that all the manufacturing processes are running smoothly and on time. In addition to this responsibility, Adriana is well aware of the implications of her situation as an American leader of a Tanzanian company. When looking at foreign-led or based companies and charities that operate in places like Tanzania, Adriana said, “You still see a lot of poorly conceived charities and businesses… who want to do good, but really have no idea what the context is… or are just blind to certain realities.”
With this in mind, Adriana regularly takes time to step back and reflect on what she and the business are doing by asking critical questions, such as: “Does this choice align with our company values? Is this product actually going to do good for our customers and make them more profitable or resilient or happier?” Answering these questions requires Adriana to be knowledgeable about the social contexts in which her business operates and interacting regularly with the customers to understand their needs. Adriana described it as having, “...confidence in your abilities, the abilities of your team, and… to be able to collectively step back and be self-critical.”
Another important consideration of Imara’s leadership is how to remain financially sustainable. Imara is still in need of funding to accelerate growth, but they are on track to become profitable if their goal of selling 250 machines is reached by the end of the year. This approach of fast-tracking profitability and using that to attract more funding while intentionally not aiming for multi-million dollar fundraising rounds is contrary to the typical Silicon Valley startup story - especially for hardware startups which may be capital-intensive. However, it’s perfectly suited to Imara Tech. By focusing on profitability and proving out the company’s hypothesis one step at a time, they are developing a manufacturing model that will be replicable across other market verticals and even across Sub-Sahara Africa, enabling it to elevate the status of African farming tech and quality of life for thousands.