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This week, a start-up that helps farmers in emerging economies find markets for their goods seeks advice on how to assemble an advisory board.– Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

After graduating from Brown University in 2007 with a degree in Business Economics, Ashley King-Bischof spent a season playing professional basketball in Europe. The travel for games piqued her interest in exploring more of the world. In 2009, she landed a fellowship with Kiva, an international nonprofit that facilitates lending of loans as little as $25. King-Bischof was sent to Cameroon where she saw firsthand the struggles of small-tract farmers in developing economies.

After her fellowship, King-Bischof worked for Yelp from 2010 to 2013, during which time the review site went public. “It was a really interesting time to be part of a start-up – I caught the ‘bug’ there,” she says. While at Yelp she learned how to program computers and added the technology piece to her interests. Then in 2014, King-Bischof earned her MBA at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, where her past experiences and personal passion to use economics to have a larger impact in the world incubated as an idea for a business.

King-Bischof thought back to the farmers in emerging economies, who usually earn only a few dollars a day. “There has been a lot of focus on improving yield for farmers – giving them more seeds, fertilizers, training, etc. – but the [non-profits] still fall short on being able to give farmers better access to markets,” she says. “That’s what we’re focused on.”

Markit Opportunity founder Ashley King Bischof (Photo by Noobstaa Phillip Vang) Markit Opportunity founder Ashley King-Bischof (Photo by Noobstaa Phillip Vang)

The pitch

Ashley King-Bischof, founder and chief executive of Markit Opportunity

Markit Opportunity connects smallholder farmers to markets. We’re based in Kenya, working with farmers there, and soon in Uganda and Tanzania. We buy produce from them and distribute it to supermarkets, wholesale buyers and exporters in East Africa. Currently (and for the rest of this year), I am a fellow at the Halcyon Incubator for social entrepreneurs in Georgetown.

“Our goal is to set up the best channels for farmers to sell their produce and get paid. We created a model that allows us to build trust with a cluster of farmers who live close to each other and are farming the same crop. Our farmers are living in very rural areas, often without running water and electricity, but they have mobile phones. Once we build personal relationships with farmers, our model uses technology for efficient trade.

“We use text messaging to communicate with farmers. They tell us when they are ready to sell and we facilitate the sale process with an agent hired by Markit Opportunity. Then we use a smartphone app that documents the trading details and allows the farmers to sign off on the deals and provides a track record of sales. We are digitizing rural trade in a way that hasn’t been done before. We’re able to have a quality-control process and a feedback loop with the farmers instead of just spot trading with farmers. And because we are being transparent about pricing and weighing their harvests, we are improving farmers’ incomes by up to 30 percent. We have long-term relationships and we think it’s better to treat people fairly.

“We launched in late 2015 and after two seasons we’ve proven profitability. We started with red onions to understand one product and interactions with those farmers really well. But the big idea is to scale–to take this model that we’ve proven with more than 300 farmers and scale it to more clusters of farmers and larger buyers. This model could be applicable across Africa and in South America and Southeast Asia. We’re fleshing out the technology and exploring additional services and revenue streams that can come from this and benefit farmer groups and improve food systems in general. This year we beta test financial services to farmer using the personal, social and trading data we collect. Most farmers use cash transactions and this is an untapped customer segment for many large banks.

“We are currently raising seed capital to do that. I am also trying to figure out how to build my advisory board. When we were much smaller, I tapped alumni of my business school for advice in an informal ‘sounding board.’ They were really helpful, but not as hands-on as I imagine an advisory board to be. Now I need the strategic skills of board members to help us grow. What does an advisory board look like for a company at our stage? As a supply chain company that’s heavily involved in logistics and technology and is located in an emerging market, what is the framework for building an advisory board to answer some of the big questions of how to scale well to meet our long-term goals?”

The advice

Sara Herald, associate director, social entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You were smart to tap your networks as an initial sounding board. If anyone in that group was exceeding helpful, talk to them about a more formal role on your board.

“For start-ups at your stage, at lot of the advisory board members are investors. As you are raising money, look for investors who can help steer the company in an active role. Make a list of the skills and connections you need to compliment your strengths, then look for advisors who have some piece of the expertise you need. And you don’t need a huge board, you just want to fill the holes you have. A few key people–perhaps four to six individuals–can be a very effective advisory board.

“So much of building a good advisory board depends on working your personal connections and figuring out who can introduce you to the right people. Work the advantages you have with the Halcyon Incubator. As one of the leading social incubators in the country, there are lots of foundations and people connected to Halcyon that you could tap for leads. This is also a good way to find someone who understands and supports your company’s social mission, which is key for social enterprises.

“One thing to be careful with: people who want equity in your company in exchange for serving on your board. That’s one reason investors are a great first start, because they already have a stake in your company. Before giving up additional equity–even small pieces–you really need to weight the value another individual could bring as a board member.”

The reaction

King-Bischof

“Our initial sounding board consisted of a lot of talented and helpful classmates from IE, but a select few were most engaged and useful, even when we were just an idea.

“The Halcyon Incubator has connected me to dozens of incredible people in international development and supply chain management. I can think of a few that have already had an impact on the direction of our company. Recently, through one’s connections, we have begun a partnership with one of the largest importers to Europe to scale our platform to international customers.

“I realize that our advisory board may have different needs today than it will in the future, especially as we grow across continents. So while my shortlist is longer than four to six, I will continue to look for candidates to join our board.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.