Globally, the number of hungry people stands at 821 million, according to the 2019 State of Food and Security of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Of this number, Africa accounts for 251 million, representing 31 per cent of hungry people. But, a crusade to leverage digital agriculture to push back hunger is on course, with Nigeria leading the charge. Experts say prioritising digital agriculture will not only change how farmers farm, but also transform all segments of the agric value chain, Assistant Editor CHIKODI OKEREOCHA reports
Globally, a new thinking in favour of using digital technology to boost food production, unlock the vast potential of agriculture value chains and, ultimately, push back hunger has taken the centre stage. But, in Africa, where the scourge of hunger is more pronounced, Nigeria appears to be leading the charge to change the embarrassing narrative via digital agriculture.
The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2019 State of Food and Security put the number of hungry people globally at 821 million. Of the number, the organisation said Africa accounted for 251 million, representing 31 per cent of the hungry people.
Disconcerting, no doubt, African Development Bank (AfDB) Group President Akinwumi Adesina called for urgent and concerted efforts to “end hunger”. He said: “In spite of all the gains made in agriculture, we are not winning the global war against hunger. We must all arise collectively and end global hunger. Hunger diminishes our humanity.”
That was at the recent Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) in Yokohama, Japan, where, in his keynote address, Adesina aligned with the position of global business leaders, investors and development partners that digital agriculture is the next frontier for economic development in Africa.
Even before the conference acknowledged that digital agriculture is perhaps, the most transformative and disruptive of all the revolutions in agric, Nigeria had started making strides in the use of digital agriculture, not only to change how farmers work, but also to transform every part of the agri-business value chain.
Some Nigerian agriculture platforms that have been recording successes in harnessing digital technologies to deliver value to various stakeholders in the sector are Farmcrowdy, Thrive Agric, Fresh Direct, Simply Green, Psaltry International, Verdant Agritech, and Kerekusk Rice.
For instance, for his ground-breaking innovation, co-founder of Thrive Agric, Mr. Ayodeji Arikawe, was one of the top 10 finalists for the grand finale of the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI) scheduled to take place in Accra, Ghana, on November 16.
The ANPI is a conference where African and global entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and leaders will convene to discuss how best to enable entrepreneurship and the digital economy across the continent.
Spearheaded by the Jack Ma Foundation, ANPI is a philanthropic initiative aimed at supporting and inspiring the next generation of African entrepreneurs across all sectors, who are building a more sustainable and inclusive economy for the future of the continent.
Arikawe’s Thrive Agric is an agricultural technology-enabled company that works with smallholder farmers to enable them with greater access to finance, as well as improve their income and harvest distribution.
Today, Thrive Agric works with 22,000 smallholder farmers in Nigeria. With its platform, it has been increasing digital participation in agriculture by providing agro-based high-yield investment opportunities that guarantee profitable returns for farmers.
The company said its aim was to build the largest network of farmers in Africa. According to Arikawe, the company’s mission is to “build an Africa that feeds the world and itself.” He added that to make sure farmers are fully secured, its farms and farming activities have comprehensive covers by Leadway Assurance.
This must have been why the ANPI chose Arikawe among the top 10 finalists from across Africa to compete for a share of the $1 million grant. His selection came after seven months and nearly 10,000 applications from 50 African countries accessed by the initiative.
However, Arikawe’s Thrive Agric is not the only success story of Nigeria’s push to end hunger by leveraging digital agric space. Farmcrowdy, Nigeria’s first digital agriculture platform, has also been empowering farmers across Nigeria by offering them access to funding, quality seeds and capacity building.
Since September 2016, when it threw its doors open for business, the platform has empowered over 12,000 farmers across 14 states in Nigeria. With farm sponsors in Nigeria and across the Diapora, Farmcrowdy is effectively growing a community of local farmers and facilitating food production in Nigeria and eventually across Africa.
Founded by e-commerce expert Onyeka Akumah and four other Nigerians, Farmcrowdy tightened its grip on the digital agric landscape when it sealed a $1 million seed funding deal on March 21, this year. It was led by international and local investors, which included Cox Enterprises and Techstars Ventures, among others.
On the strength of the additional funding, Akumah said the company was poised to amplify its presence in Nigeria and also explore new opportunities.
“We are delving into the possibility of utilising drone services for field analysis, improving our farmers yield with additional research and 3D mapping. We are also entering into formidable strategic partnerships that will grow the impact of our work,” she said.
The company is said to be working on expanding to other African countries.
Essentially, Farmcrowdy connects smallholder farmers with investors. Nigerian “farm sponsors,” as the investors are called, select the farms they want to invest in on the firm’s website shop or on its mobile app. Farmcrowdy, then, uses the funds to hire farmers, lease land, and provide inputs such as fertiliser, seed, and technical support from planting to harvesting.
Farms on the website are rice, maize, poultry, cassava, and soya beans. The farm cycle can run from three to 10 months, depending on the type of farm, with return on investment hovering around 6 to 25 per cent.
Investors can put in anything from $300 to $1,000, or even more in some cases. “What we have done successfully is introduce Nigerians to how they can come together in a pool, through a trusted platform that they can vet, and sponsor small-scale farmers to grow food,” Akumah said.
Nasir Yammama, founder, Verdant AgricTech, another digital agriculture platform, has also thrown his hat into the ring. Since 2014 when he started, Yammama has never looked back in his resolve to use innovation in digital technology to fight hunger. He does this by helping farmers increase their productivity, earn more money, and promote sustainable farming system, which thrives largely on mobile technologies.
To access these services, farmers buy one-time paper scratch cards containing a Personal Identification Number (PIN) for a little fee from agricultural cooperatives they belong to.
Once a farmer obtains the card, he or she texts the command “REG” or “HELP” alongside details like their name, gender, and location to a short code created by Verdant AgricTech. This system is already running in the northern city of Kano.
The firm validates the request and then proceeds to phone or text the farmer to schedule a visit that would enable its staff to profile the farmer. Verdant AgricTech then begins to offer periodic reminders, advisory services, weather information, and financial skills to registered farmers.
Farmers can easily text commands like “WRT” to get weather forecast, “FINA” for financial advice, “TILL” for guidance on tillage operations, “HARV” for guidance on harvesting, and many more. The social enterprise then uses text, audio message, or phone calls to address the enquiries.
Verdant AgriTech’s platform also links small-scale farmers to other key players in the value chain, using data to inform farmers and the stakeholders alike. The goal, according to Yammama, is to ensure that “data is available across the value chain so that the farmer is able to make better decisions in the long run”.
He said data was crucial to modern agriculture because it makes the works of agritech start-ups, donors, policymakers, and the government easier. “We want policymakers to decide better, we want farmers to decide better, we want agribusinesses to decide better,” he said.
Similarly, Simply Green Juices, Nigeria’s first farm-to-bottle, organic, cold-pressed juice company, is also making significant inroad into the digital space. The company grows fruits and vegetables used in the production of its various juices at a farm in Oyo State.
Its CEO, Sola Ladoja, said his target was to cut the importation of fruits and vegetables into the country since most of them can be grown locally. The agri-preneur said he started the business when he discovered that there were no good-quality green juices in Nigeria, compared to New York where he was living previously.
His venture into the juice business has since paid-off. The business, which he started in 2014 with $700 ( about N250,000), is said to have grown into millions of naira.
Even Psaltry International, another digital agric platform, which started earlier in 2005 with a focus on the marketing of cassava, has not done badly either. Founded by Yemisi Iranloye, the agribusiness has since expanded its operations into farm development and production of food-grade starch from cassava.
Today, Psaltry supplies food-grade starch to firms in Nigeria. It also has an outgrower scheme that benefits about 2,000 farmers, labourers, processors, and other players in the cassava-to-starch supply chain.
Also waxing strong is Fresh Direct, an organic farming start-up that uses new solutions, such as vertical farming and hydroponics (growing plants without soil and with little water). Its aim is to make farming accessible to everyone to produce food, even in cities.
Founded by Angel Adelaja, Fresh Direct has created a stackable container farm using shipping containers, where one container can produce vegetables grown on one-and-a-half acres of land. Fresh Direct also creates low-tech affordable technologies from indigenous materials to make farming simpler.
Why digital agriculture is thriving
It is easy to see why digital agriculture is gaining traction. For one, more than 80 per cent of Nigeria’s farmers are said to be smallholder farmers, producing more than 90 per cent of domestic output.
A 2016 report by World Bank also said half of working Nigerians are in smallholder farming, noting, however, that this group accounts for the poorest 40 per cent of the population compared to only 17 per cent of wage workers.
According to development experts, the high poverty rate amongst small-scale farmers is as a result of low mechanization, poor agric extension systems, poor road networks, inadequate market information, and lack of access to credit and quality inputs such as fertiliser and seed.
As if these issues are not enough to hold small-scale farmers down, the challenge of climate change, which is marked by irregular rainfall patterns and rising temperatures, has also added to their woes.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and other Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) have, through various initiatives, sought to address some of these challenges by linked smallholder farmers to large-scale processors and facilitating access to credit by de-risking agricultural financing from banks.
However, their efforts have not been able to close the gap. Factors such as illiteracy, cultural barriers and geography have continued to constrain the expansion of digital solutions to smallholder farmers in Nigeria hence, the intervention of digital agriculture platforms in Nigeria.
Their collective plan was to use a range of digital tools to improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers. They unanimously agree that digital agriculture is a viable option to push back poverty amongst farmers and also end food insecurity.
Interestingly, the Tokyo conference brought this reality to the front burner, with the Director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), Michael Hailu, stating that digital technology is a prerequisite to advancing agriculture on the continent.
“Without transforming agriculture you cannot envisage development,” emphasised. His comments were echoed by Regional Vice President for Middle East Africa for International Finance Corporation (IFC), Sergio Pimenta, who said the digital revolution would help unlock the vast potential of agriculture value chains.