Three African youth-led Agritech businesses— Kenya’s DigiCow, Botswana’s Brastorne Enterprises and Nigeria’s ThriveAgric— will receive mentorship and $1.5 million in grants to help them to aggressively expand solutions to long-standing challenges faced by smallholder farmers across the continent.
As winners of the 2022 AYuTe Africa Challenge— an initiative launched by international development organization Heifer International— they will be able to scale up innovations that hold the potential to disrupt agriculture on the continent and reposition the sector as a rewarding career path for the youth.
This is according to Adesuwa Ifedi, senior vice president of Africa Programs at Heifer International, who says that the agritech accelerator sought innovations that were “poised to provide the positive disruption” that farmers urgently need.
And there couldn’t be a better time. Climate change induced prolonged drought in the horn of Africa has devastated the livelihoods of farmers and has put up to 22 million at risk of hunger. At the same time, many countries in Africa experience continued COVID-19 related supply chain disruptions, and rising food prices caused by the conflict in Ukraine.
Given that almost a quarter of the economy of Sub-Saharan Africa is driven by agriculture, and more than 60% of the population consists of smallholder farmers with an average age of 60 against a life expectancy of 65 in some contexts, and crop yields that lag behind the rest of the world, initiatives that help to catalyze youth-led agricultural transformation are urgently needed.
“At a time when Africa is facing unprecedented food-related challenges, it is incredibly inspiring to see these young African champions firmly focused on an agriculture-led future that provides farmers with the innovations they need to succeed,” says Ifedi.
Peninah Wanja, the founder and managing director of Farmingtech solutions, developer of DigiCow is no stranger to the difficulties experienced by the small-scale dairy farmers who produce 56% of Kenya’s 4 million liters of annual dairy output each year.
“I grew up watching my mom struggle to get our cows to produce enough milk, and I’ve spent 15 years working with small-scale dairy farmers,” recalls the former extension officer and farmer’s daughter.
DigiCow is a mobile phone app for dairy farmers that helps to bridge knowledge gaps, maintain records and generate reports. The DigiCow platform provides free access to livestock management experts, veterinarians, artificial insemination providers and feed supply services and features a digital training room and peer to peer engagement, which helps to increase productivity, overcome common farming challenges and modernize production.
“It’s been so exciting to see 60,000 farmers—many of them women—now using our DigiCow apps to become more profitable and productive,” Wanja says.
According to McKinsey, Nigeria is one of the “three highest potential” African countries from the perspective of untapped agricultural opportunity. It would thus make sense to invest in agtech that promises to alleviate key challenges faced by Nigerian smallholder farmers— lack of access to finance, information and markets.
“We’ve developed the technologies, strategies and partnerships we believe can build the largest network of productive, profitable farmers Africa has ever seen,” says Uka Eje, co-founder and CEO of Thrive Agric, a technology-driven agricultural company, and developer of the proprietary Agricultural Operating System (AOS).
The AOS platform, which can work entirely offline, links farmers to capital, agricultural advice, business support, and access to markets.
AOS currently empowers some 500,000 Nigerian smallholder farmers by connecting them with a team of 2,000 field agents who help them to increase yields and become more profitable .
The ThriveAgric Marketplace links farmers with markets for agricultural output, encouraging and enabling them to sell their produce to the fast-moving consumer goods and agri-processing markets, and provides farmers with access to quality and affordable farming inputs.
“Investors are responding to our potential and this prestigious award from Heifer International will accelerate our plans to expand across the continent,” says Eje.
According to a study reported in journal, Nature Sustainabilty, while mobile technology has the potential to have a disruptive impact on agriculture, less than 40% of farming households across many African countries have internet access, and data is frequently prohibitively costly.
“About 80% of Africans cannot afford smartphones or expensive data— but they do have feature phones, and Brastorne is ensuring those phones connect farmers, youth and women to the resources they need,” says Martin Stimela, co-founder and CEO of Brastorne.
Brastorne achieves its vision of “Connecting the Unconnected” by providing underserved groups, such as rural farmers with access to localized information, markets and finance. The Brastorne mobile service Mpotsa (“Ask me”) makes this possible, while USSD technology (a protocol that is used to send text messages) enables users who have phones with the most basic functionality to create profiles, add friends, create chat groups, and perform other activities.
Its tools, such as mAgri, that are specifically developed for farmers, provide access to “farming information, markets and short-term finance” using the basic functions of a feature phone (no smart phone required) including SMS and interactive voice technology.
Brastorne estimates that farmers experience an increase in yield equivalent to $93.67 for every dollar invested in its technology. Overall, its farmers have raised their yields by 250% and achieved savings of 85% in communication and information costs.
A McKinsey study estimates that in order for Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve its full agricultural potential, it “will need eight times more fertilizer, six times more improved seed, at least $8 billion of investment in basic storage (not including cold-chain investments for horticulture or animal products), and as much as $65 billion in irrigation.”
Added to this is a need for digital approaches that can help smallholder farmers to ramp up their yields and build resilience against shocks such as climate change. Smallholder farmers need to move from subsistence to commercial farming and this cannot occur without information, capital or ready access to markets.
The AYuTe Africa Challenge seeks to address this gap in rural African communities by harnessing the passion and ideas of young innovators, enabling them to scale up their impact through prize money and mentorship. All three of the winners of the challenge address the digital divide through the use of mobile phones, a technology that in its most basic form, is accessible and affordable.
“Today we have the technologies to feed Africa; We need to put them into the hands of the farmers,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank Group in January, during a session at the Dakar 2 Food Summit in Senegal which was themed, Feed Africa: food sovereignty and resilience.
Investing in a new generation of African social entrepreneurs who have the innovation, the ideas and the energy to empower farmers may just be the key to unlock Africa’s vast agricultural potential.
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