By Adekunle Agbetiloye Editor: Hadassah Egbedi
Many agritech companies have emerged in Africa to bridge the continent’s agricultural productivity deficit and meet the needs of its burgeoning population. In 2020, agritech startups across Africa raised $59,990,000, representing 8.6 per cent of the total funding secured by tech startups in the year in review.
Among other things, these startups set up digital systems to educate farmers and help them with inputs, insurance, financing, information, and access to markets. All to one end – increased productivity. Here are some mission-driven agritech companies in Africa you should know about:
Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu - Owerri, Nigeria
Many African smallholder farmers growing fresh produce lack access to electricity and the financial means to invest in cooling technology. Two years ago, only 36 per cent of Africa’s 10 million smallholder farmers growing fresh produce had access to the grid, and 62 per cent could not afford cooling technology. Consequently, they have higher post-harvest losses.
In 2015, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu established ColdHubs to help such farmers prevent post-harvest losses. ColdHubs is a solar-powered walk-in cold room used by smallholder farmers in farm clusters and outdoor markets to store and preserve fresh produce 24 hours daily, extending their shelf life from two days to more than 21 days. The solar panels on each hub are linked to a battery storage system, allowing the coolers to operate off the grid all day.
Each ColdHubs unit has a state-of-the-art ColdHubs Advanced Remote Monitoring System (CARMS) that monitors the number of door openings, battery percentage, ambient temperature, cold room temperature, and solar irradiation. With CARMS, the team manages and pre-empt the performance of each hub. CARMS is now being expanded to include customers via the Virtual Cold Chain Assistant.
Ikegwuonu hopes to see technology further redefine agricultural production on the African continent. “Our farmers are predominantly smallholders, who rely on oral tradition and knowledge to produce food. Most of these traditional practices are being challenged in our time of rapid climate change, and productivity is declining as environmental output weakens. This local and traditional knowledge will be more useful when amplified by technology,” he said. He believes technology will play a role in enhancing decision-making in production, supporting the management of crop and livestock growth, strengthening harvest, and rapidly connecting farmers to a larger market.
ColdHubs is available in 38 locations across 22 states in Nigeria and will soon expand its technology and service to East Africa, Southern Africa, and some western and Francophone-African countries.
Adamou Nchange Kouotou - Yaounde, Cameroon
In 2018, Adamou Nchange Kouotou established Agrixtech to tackle pests and diseases that hamper agricultural productivity. The Agrixtech app equips farmers with the technical know-how to adopt better crop disease management strategies on their farms.
To reach farmers with low literacy, the app employs text and voice recognition technology in several local languages. It also assists farmers by providing advice and task reminders throughout the agricultural production cycle. Farmers can monitor farm activities with Agrixtech, and weekly notifications inform them of key farm activities for the week. Using a phone camera, the app scan farms to detect crop diseases and profer advice to combat them.
Speaking to Ventures Africa, Kouotou said biotechnology is lacking in Africa’s agritech scene. Just a small number of farmers have adopted the use of improved seeds. Many others are untrained to use biotechnologies, which can be harmful if used incorrectly. “Farmers require training to learn how to use biotechnologies and chemicals more effectively. I believe that information and communication technology (ICT) can assist with this. We can provide farmers with technical know-how by developing ICT products,” he said.
He is also concerned about mechanization on the continent and wants affordable machinery developed for farmers. Most of the machinery used by farmers is imported and often expensive to own. “We should think of how to innovate in the context of our continent to provide machinery that our farmers can use at an affordable price. We should develop tools that will facilitate their daily work; tools they can acquire at an affordable price,” he said.
Ikenna Nzewi and Uzoma Ayogu - Akwa Ibom, Nigeria
Founded by Ikenna Nzewi and Uzoma Ayogu in 2017, Releaf drives development in Nigeria and Africa’s farming system using technology. Unlike the Western plantation and nuclear farming models, farming in Africa is typically decentralized with smaller plot sizes; Releaf is building a network of decentralized factories around farming hotspots.
“We believe that it is more effective and profitable to layer technology and innovation on this existing system, rather than re-engineer the system in a way that is often detrimental to the natural biome and other players across the value chain. That is why we are building a network of decentralized factories, powered by our technology, close to farming hotspots across the continent in a way that aligns with the smallholder-driven farming model,” Nzewi told Ventures Africa. This model lowers logistics costs and post-harvest losses while increasing processing yields and farmer profitability.
Releaf’s current business model is centred on the oil palm industry. The startup buys palm nuts from farmers, cracks them with its proprietary technology – the Kraken, and sells to large food processors. Indigenously built in Nigeria, the Kraken can process up to 500 metric tons of palm nuts per week to produce premium palm products at 95 percent purity, better than the 88 percent industry standard. It operates 25 times faster than local cracking equipment and 200 times faster than de-shelling by hand. It also costs less than half the price of foreign de-shellers.
According to Nzewi, Africa’s entire agricultural sector needs an infusion of technology and innovation. Before establishing Releaf, Nzewi and Ayogu visited more than 20 states in Nigeria to study eight different value chains, following the products from farm to market shelves to understand how each specific value chain functioned. They also investigated opportunities to develop technology to catalyze industrialization in these value chains.
“Africa’s burgeoning technology sector has demonstrated that Africans can develop effective solutions to their problems. We’ve seen a wide range of innovations, from fintech and e-commerce to healthcare, and now, we want to focus on agriculture. This new wave of innovation can be channelled towards developing technology that will strengthen our food systems and position farmers for long-term success,” Nzewi said.
Mwiza Simbeye and Sikalinda Patrick - Lusaka, Zambia
African smallholder farmers often do not get timely agricultural information and this affects their yields. AgriPredict is solving this problem by providing farmers with access to information that helps them identify diseases and predict pest infestations. Founded in 2016 by Mwiza Simbeye and Sikalinda Patrick, the startup also provides weather predictions to help farmers plan better.
AgriPredict alerts users of diseases or pest infestations detected in given areas. A farmer can take a photo of a suspected diseased plant and have AgriPredict give a diagnosis, treatment options, and the location of the closest agro-dealer in the area. As marketing is one of the major problems affecting small-scale farmers in Zambia, AgriPredict also connects farmers with markets for fair trade of their commodities.
According to Simbeye, the future of tech in Africa’s agriculture is bright. He argues that agriculture is the only space that’s not heavily regulated and attracts many new ideas like the adoption of artificial intelligence and blockchain. “Blockchain and Artificial intelligence will be a huge part of Africa’s agricultural future, particularly in dealing with diverse currencies that often impede trade between countries,” Simbeye told Ventures Africa.
Simbeye hopes to see technology used on a wide scale for irrigation to reduce reliance on rain-fed agriculture and to increase productivity in farming. He also believes that cryptocurrencies will improve farmers’ access to finance and cross-border transactions. “I believe cryptocurrencies will bring light to the African FX problem. With 54 African countries, each with distinct currencies and currency management, foreign exchange is a bottleneck for trade in Africa,” he explained.
Timi Oke - Lagos, Nigeria
In the third quarter of 2021, Nigeria’s agricultural imports stood at N789.1 billion, while exports stood at N79.4 billion. The situation is similar in many African countries. The huge import-export gap is not necessarily due to a lack of agricultural supply but rather to bottlenecks in the distribution chain. AgroEknor is working to alleviate these bottlenecks using technology-driven value-chain solutions to source, refine, and export agricultural products to Europe, Asia, and North and South American markets.
“When you take agricultural products to the global market, they want to see end-to-end traceability. They want to be able to scan a barcode that tells them the origin of a product and the chemicals used to fumigate it. We were able to achieve that with technology – a farm management software,” Timi Oke told Ventures Africa.
AgroEknor also uses sensor-assisted processing equipment at its hibiscus flower processing facility to ensure quality and moisture control. This increased global acceptance of the company’s products, which translates into higher client payments. “Exporters, processors, and even smallholder traditional farmers have embraced digital transformation, and we are not ready to slow down. We work with over 5,000 farmers, and some of the software we are working to implement monitors yield, provides field analysis and weather reports, and even climate reports. Technology is making life easier for farmers,” Oke said.
Oke would like to see technology transform agricultural processing on the continent. “Technology can help optimize the value chain to reduce wastage. It often takes about seven days to process 12 tonnes of hibiscus. With the right technology, it will take 48 hours. That is the advantage of integrating the right technology into the value chain,” he said.
Dried hibiscus, ginger, and sesame seed are AgroEknor’s chief export products. Currently, it exports about 2,000 tonnes of agricultural produce and sells to about 30 different clients in eight countries. Their clients range from people in the food production industry to the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic industry.
Jehiel Oliver - Nairobi, Kenya
There are an estimated 33 million smallholder farms in Africa, and the farmers who work on them contribute up to 70 per cent of the continent’s food supply. A significant number of these farmers do not engage in mechanized farming, resulting in lower productivity and income. To improve mechanization on the continent and provide farmers with essentials such as tractors at a low cost, Jehiel Oliver founded Hello Tractor in 2014. The startup’s application receives tractor service requests to help farmers obtain convenient and affordable tractor services while providing additional income and enhanced security for tractor owners.
For tractor owners, the platform provides the remote tracking of assets and prevents fraud and machine misuse through virtual tractor monitoring. Tractor owners on the platform set prices for their services based on average market rates and get paid a deposit to deploy their tractors. They receive their balance following the completion of the service and earn 90 per cent of the revenue from all services provided. The remaining 10 per cent goes to the agent who requested the booking on behalf of the farmer.
Speaking with Ventures Africa on the future of tech in Africa’s agriculture, Oliver said Web3 and DAOs can bring about the necessary coordination of the smallholder system where land plots are small, broadly distributed, and difficult to coordinate. “Many kinks need to be worked out, like reducing the cost of transactions, the energy usage required by distributed systems, and governance, but the value is clear,” said Oliver.
Oliver wants to see more adoption of technologies that collapse the agricultural supply chain and bring more value to the grower. “Technology underpins everything we do at Hello Tractor. Over the pandemic, we launched a pay-as-you-go tractor finance product that will bring asset finance to unbanked populations across our footprint in Africa. This is exciting for our growers who will now have access to more equipment and fantastic news for the entrepreneurs that service them,” he said.
Akindele Phillips - Lagos, Nigeria
Farmcrowdy is Nigeria’s first digital agriculture platform that connects farm sponsors with farmers to increase food production. The company was founded by Onyeka Akumah, Phillips Akindele, Temitope Omotolani, Christopher Abiodun, and Ifeanyi Anazodo in 2016.
Since its inception, Farmcrowdy has leveraged technology to empower various agricultural stakeholders. What started as a platform focused on raising finance for small-scale farmers across Nigeria has expanded into a fully digital platform that cuts across all agricultural value chains. It presently operates Farmcrowdy Structured Finance, Farmcrowdy Insurance, Farmcrowdy Marketing, Farmcrowdy Tech and Data, Farmcrowdy Foods, and Farmcrowdy Aggregation. So far, the company has impacted over 11,000 rural farmers increasing their income by 80 per cent.
Akindele, the company’s current CEO, would like to see increased penetration of technologies that tackle food wastage and post-harvest loss. “Nigeria currently has less than one percent of the world’s cold storage logistics capacity resulting in the loss of approximately 15million metric tons of perishable farm produce every year. Large-scale use of cold chain technologies would save African countries billions of dollars annually and transform agricultural productivity,” he explained.
He would also like to see data collection technologies used to improve transparency, structure financial histories for underbanked agricultural stakeholders, and deepen overall market intelligence.