How Mali’s OKO Finance helps rural farmers access crop insurance

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Malian insurtech startup OKO Finance has already helped hundreds of rural farmers access crop insurance for the first time, and is now fundraising to formally launch and expand further.

Founded in 2017, OKO develops affordable mobile-based crop insurance products to provide smallholder farmers with the financial security they need, regardless of unstable climate trends. 

“We use the latest satellite observations to develop precise weather monitoring tools and partner with mobile operators to give access to insurance to farmers remotely, in a few clicks and in multiple installments. OKO also works with loan institutions to facilitate access to capital for insured farmers,” chief executive officer (CEO) Simon Schwall told Disrupt Africa.

Over 500 million smallholder farmers in the global south depend heavily on rainfall, yet less than 10 per cent have access to crop insurance to protect them. 

“Traditional insurance products are not yet able to successfully penetrate this segment due to the heavy operational costs associated with the design and deployment of their products. This is the gap that OKO intends to fill,” Schwall said.

The startup has already made some progress. 

“In terms of farmers, we saw a strong interest from the start. In a few weeks more than 800 farmers asked for a quote. It shows strong demand,” said Schwall. 

Converting these into paying customers proved a bit more difficult, but OKO now has more than 450 paying customers in its beta version. 

“We expect this to grow very quickly as soon as we will be more widely available,” Schwall said.

That wider availability will be linked to funding, which has not always been easy to obtain.

“Even if everyone understands that smallholder farmers have a strong need for insurance, many still believe that farmers themselves will not change their ways and will not be willing to invest in an insurance product. So we found it hard to find financing to set up our pilots,” said Schwall.

OKO last closed a pre-seed round of US$300,000, which included participation from Techstars and Barclays after it participated in the Barclays Accelerator in Tel Aviv, but is now looking to raise US$1.5 million in order to grow more quickly.

“We are currently operating in Mali and looking for partners to bring our service to other Sub-Saharan Africa countries in 2020,” said Schwall.

It already has some strong partners, notably mobile operator Orange and insurance firm Allianz. The startup, which was a winner of the Malian leg of the Seedstars World competition and was one of 10 African startups that will pitch at the global final next year, partners with the likes of Allianz to design products, which it then distributes and takes a percentage. Schwall said it is in the process of agreeing further such partnerships.

Aside from funding, OKO is still looking to overcome regulatory barriers to its growth.

“Insurance is a very regulated market and obtaining a licence can take a very long time. We hope to obtain all the required authorisations very soon in order to launch publicly,” said Schwall.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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