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Trinity startup Dbuntu brings data-driven approach to Ugandan dairy farming
by Jeremy Gerlach
Alvin Mbabazi ’18 and Brent Mandelkorn ’18 grew up 8,000 miles apart, but came to Trinity with two things in common: They both wanted to start a business, and they both live and breathe dairy.
Mbabazi, a finance major in Trinity’s entrepreneurship program, grew up in Uganda, an east African nation situated on the equator, perhaps best known as the starting point of the river Nile. Mandelkorn, an engineering science and accounting double major, grew up in Utah but has family in Wisconsin, perhaps best known for the cheeseheads that support the Green Bay Packers. Both regions are cow crazy, with economies heavily reliant on milk and dairy farming.
“We got randomly assigned to each other in E-Hall our first year,” says Mbabazi, referring to the Entrepreneurship Hall, Trinity’s unique residential space for students interested in startups. “We hit it off right away, and we both realized that we could build a business right here at Trinity that aligned with our strengths.”
From that partnership, Dbuntu was born. This startup is an online data platform designed to help dairy farmers make smarter, more data-driven decisions by offering a variety of smartphone and SMS apps that allow dairy farmers to keep track of how much milk their livestock is producing. The app, which maps out this production over time, can help these farmers use analytics to start optimizing the yield of their herds.
“When these farmers can track data over time, they can make better decisions,” Mbabazi says. “They can see the effects of their decisions on their overall bottom line. We’re just helping them efficiently allocate their resources using evidence.”
The business has already undergone field testing in Uganda and has plans to scale up its operations there over the coming months, along with a handful of other developing African nations in the near future.
Mandelkorn says he’s thrilled to be part of a startup that is both sustainable and has a positive impact.
“There are so many apps out there that thrive on making things convenient,” Mandelkorn says. “An app like Dbuntu has the ability to make millions of lives better.”
Starting a business, Mbabazi admits, was the last thing he imagined doing before coming to Trinity. Mbabazi originally started considering the school after overhearing a Tanzanian friend meeting with international recruiters who recommended the University. Trinity ended up offering Mbabazi the best financial aid package and aligned with his goal of being able to apply his education in the real world.
“I knew I wanted to make a difference, but I wasn’t sure how,” Mbabazi says, “I came here interested in engineering, IT, tech, design, and even finance…but once I found the entrepreneurship program, that was what started to resonate with me.”
And once Mbabazi found Mandelkorn during their stint in E-Hall, the two immediately started bouncing startup ideas off each other.
“We started throwing ideas out there: parking garages, storage units...” Mandelkorn says. “But once we were sophomores, we started talking about farming and agriculture, since we both come from dairy farming backgrounds.”
The pair even exchanged visits to each other’s family farms. In Uganda, Mbabazi saw challenges local farmers were facing in a new light. The country’s thousands of farms, he says, are mostly on track to commercialize, but still only one out of about every 10 dairy farmers are commercial. The industry is also incredibly segmented, with the majority of farmers owning only a handful of cows, which are typically grouped into cooperatives.
“Many farmers aren’t operating as efficiently as they can,” Mbabazi says. “You can have too many different people making different decisions.”
These decisions can include difficult choices, like deciding which cows to keep and which cows to sell, Mbabazi explains.
“In some cases, you have 30 percent of your entire herd that’s only producing 5 percent of the economic output. But it’s costing you the full 30 percent to run.” Mbabazi says. “But if you allocated that share of cost—food, medicine—to the other cows, you’d actually increase your productivity.”
So, Mbabazi and Mandelkorn came up with a solution: They would convince a handful of farmers to use data to track milk production, then use that information to sell less productive cows and invest in more productive ones.
“We started seeing these farmers increase their production by 35 percent,” Mandelkorn says.
“We thought, ‘we’re actually onto something with this.’” Mbabazi adds. “If every farmer in Uganda had this kind of model, this would transform dairy farming there.”
This model, which started out as a simple series of formulas on an Excel spreadsheet, would eventually become Dbuntu.
Returning to Trinity, Mbabazi and Mandelkorn pitched their idea to faculty members and fellow students in the entrepreneurship program.
“The entrepreneurship program does so much more than teach you about starting a business,” Mbabazi says. “Trinity connects you with people, helps you raise capital, and even more importantly, they give you guidance to help you sharpen your ideas into something realistic.”
The pair also entered the Stumberg Venture competition, an annual two-part pitch event that gives out a total of up to $30,000 in seed money to Trinity startups. While Dbuntu failed to take home any winnings, Mbabzi and Mandelkorn brought on additional team members, honed their business plan, and came back to win $5,000 during the Stumberg competition the following year.
“Failing like this is actually a really cool experience,” Mandelkorn says. “You come back with something better. And we ended up making connections with team members that would help us later.”
Using this $5,000 prize, the team also hired a developer to build additional features to the Dbuntu app that Mbabazi and Mandelkorn had designed. While the Dbuntu website is still a “work in progress,” according to Mandelkorn, the team is still tweaking the mobile and SMS apps that will make the venture more accessible for dairy farmers—especially some who might not be able to use the platform at a desk with consistent electric power every day.
“You really can’t know what your business will need to succeed just by planning everything out,” Mandelkorn says. “We had to get feedback from users—and we’re still getting and using feedback.”
Even in April 2018, while balancing prep work for their final exams, both Mbabazi and Mandelkorn were still hunting for ways to improve Dbuntu’s position.
The pair took home honorable mention (top-nine) out of 55 startups at the TCU Neeley School of Business’ “Values and Ventures” competition on April 6-7, winning another $2,500 of seed money. The pair were accompanied by Trinity Entrepreneur-In-Residence David Girault.
“To have someone like David Girault in our corner, traveling all the way to TCU with us, helping us prepare our pitch, helping us network in person, that was invaluable,” Mandelkorn says, as Mbabazi adds, “The judges loved that we were focused on farmers, and that we had the skills to articulate our passion efficiently.”
After a quick rest to recover and finish their class work, the Dbuntu pair then scrambled more than 6,500 miles to Istanbul, Turkey, for the 2018 “Global Agripreneurs Summit” April 13-17. There, Mandelkorn and Mbabazi earned honorable mention again (top-14 out of 45 international teams).
“At these competitions, we were thrilled to see the conversations and goals we’ve been having as a team with Dbuntu are the same dialogue that’s going on about agriculture at an international level,” Mandelkorn says.
“That sort of validation, it’s inspiring,” Mbabazi says.
After a whirlwind spring of venture competitions, networking, and sharpening the Dbuntu model, Mbabazi plans to graduate in May 2018 and then to return to Uganda to oversee the first group of dairy farmers who are serving as beta testers.
Mandelkorn, who plans to graduate this coming December, will then join Mbabazi in Uganda to continue running the business.
“Uganda is beautiful, it’s an enjoyable place to be, but I never imagined it as a place I’d be living in before I met Alvin,” Mandelkorn says. “Coming to Trinity, the entrepreneurship program showed me just how much opportunity there can be in places like this.”
Nursing a small startup in a developing nation won’t be easy, Mbabazi admits—but this path is something he’s uniquely positioned to do after four years at Trinity and a lifetime spent around dairy farming.
“At Trinity, they told us this is not an easy route to take,” he says. “It’s very uncertain, but our professors, our connections, they all said if we wanted to do this, we should go for it. That was enough encouragement to change the trajectory of my entire life.”
Jeremy Gerlach is Trinity University’s Brand journalist, and as a huge dairy fan, he cries over spilled milk. Reach him at jgerlach [at] trinity.edu or on Twitter @JT_Gerlach.