New technologies enable farmers to stay in the comfort of their farms and arrange for their produce to be sold to buyers’ miles apart through an online market place. However, entrepreneurship in e-agriculture in Africa comes with many challenges.
Farmers face several challenges that can be solved by technologies. These include post-harvest losses due to poor markets and food supply chain, exploitation by middlemen that reduces profits that farmers make, difficulty in connecting producers and consumers of farm produce, storage and efficient warehousing of agricultural produce. FarmAfriQué, which is based in Nigeria, sees these challenges as a business opportunity. It developed an e-solution for African smallholder farmers to foster access to markets.
It all started with the realisation of how difficult it is to market poultry products. Being faced with the challenges, I started building my own online platform for buyers and sellers of farm produce to enable them to sell and buy at competitive prices both locally and internationally. Grains, agricultural equipment, livestock, forage crops, and many more products can be sold either in wholesale or retail quantities to buyers from all over the world. Although the main target is smallholder farmers, because most of the farmers in Africa are smallholders, FarmAfriQué does not exclude large-scale farmers. The company seeks to cut off the challenge of the use of middlemen that sap profit from farmers, reduce stress on farmers and buyers, and allow for competitive pricing due to variety.
The platform, which is barely a year old, is currently being enhanced with farmer information in preparation for commercial activities in 2017. About 23 volunteers have been invaluable in carrying out a “farmer verification exercise” to ensure that the sellers we have on the website are valid. The target is getting more than 100,000 verified farmers at this stage on the online platform. FarmAfriQué is still building the trust of local farmers and will include truck owners who will transport the produce for a little commission that the buyers will pay. FarmAfriQué, hopes to make commission on sales, commission on haulage transactions and an annual subscription fee to the platform.
Hurdles of middlemen
However, as a start-up FarmAfriQué have had to wade through hurdles of middlemen who hinder direct access to farmers and make it difficult for farmers to make a modest profit from their labour. FarmAfriQué encourages the clustering of farmers supported by a “Cluster Coordinator” with at least two assistants to help with cluster management. There are other challenges like the need for finances and human and material resources to make the business succeed. For instance, initially as the founder of the company, I had to sacrifice a huge portion of my income as a Web Developer to start FarmAfriQué, and give transportation allowance to volunteers, as investors would like to see a stable business before putting in some money.
Investors have more to offer than capital, some have technical skills and are willing to share while others have services to offer. For instance, FarmAfriQué has met with warehouse owners who are excited about the possibility of farmers utilising their warehouses to store non-perishable products for a fee lesser than what they would normally charge. FarmAfriQué, is also exploring collaboration with media houses who can advertise on the website in exchange for airtime on their stations.
One of the hurdles FarmAfriQué is overcoming is that of reaching out to many farmers. Recently, a partnership has afforded the enterprise contacts of about 300,000 new farmers. FarmAfriQué is working on verifying them before listing them on its site as the emphasis is on credible farmers and buyers on the platform. Networking and looking for partners is the main part of the job. FarmAfriQué is talking with the African Development Bank and is looking forward to working with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Bank of Agriculture in Nigeria under its “Farmers Unite” Programme. Although it is a bumpy road, my experience shows that e-Agriculture explorers can succeed in starting a business.