Interview with Michael Oluwagbemi, co-founder and executive partner at LoftyInc Allied Partners and operator of the Wennovation Hub based in Lagos, Nigeria.
What is the objective of AfriLabs?
AfriLabs is the network of innovation open spaces and support organisations across Africa. The organisation is committed to promoting knowledge sharing, to enabling resource sharing, and to promoting integration among Africa’s emerging innovation hubs, “inculators”, and hacker spaces that have been instrumental to supporting Africa’s new generation of technology innovators and enthusiasts.
What are “inculators”?
Incubators and accelerators are now jointly referred to as “inculators”. They face familiar pioneer challenges. One of the main challenges is to create awareness of both the general public and policy makers about the value of their utility. Inculators are relatively cheap and perform useful functions in Africa. They are the gateway to further engagement of Africa’s youth population, especially the tech savvy youth, and reap the consequential rewards of social impact, innovation and job creation.
What can they do for agricultural development in Africa?
Africa’s agriculture is still largely subsistence despite billions of development aid and grants towards advancing productivity and the attractiveness of the sector. Africa even continues to be a net importer of food despite having one of the largest proportion of arable land globally and despite having such a diversified bio-system that it could be the food basket of the world. Most of the advances in agriculture have been externally imposed on the continent with consequently poor adoption either due to lack of fit or cost. ICT start-up incubation and acceleration in agriculture provides a unique opportunity to re-engage Africa’s own youths across the agricultural value chain, empowered with technology, so Africa can develop its own technologies fit for purpose and feed her citizens freed from the external dependency. Furthermore, it puts the “sexy” back in agriculture for our youths. Our farms could become the offices of the future.
What are the major challenges for young ICT entrepreneurs in agriculture?
I like to speak more about opportunities. The many obstacles in the food value chain provide entrepreneurs with golden business opportunities if they are willing to invest in solutions, for example in monitoring, storage, preservation and agro-industrialisation that enhance the value of crops and animals to the end-users as well as middle-men in the value chain. Along the many different operational challenges of running such a business, one interesting challenge for Africa’s young entrepreneurs is how to represent Africa’s staple foods to the world. The field of food technology, product presentation and packaging holds many answers for this less explored path.
How can entrepreneurs in e-agriculture achieve revenue generation and profitability?
The surest path for revenue generation or profitability for any start-up in Africa is creating value. Start-ups that add real value to their customers (the farmers and the consumer) become the winners in the market. To do so would require a degree of collaboration with existing players, and leveraging the market channels that traditional players had built but have exploited sub-optimally. And as the latest Aso Villa Demo Day in Nigeria for start-ups showed with companies like FreshDirect and Foodstantly, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs in e-agriculture in Africa.
How can ICT entrepreneurship in agriculture be strengthened in Africa?
There is no doubt that enhanced collaboration between farmers and techies has to be the first step towards achieving convergence in e-agriculture incubation and acceleration. Today, techies are more comfortable in their offices and rooms and farmers cannot fathom the essence of a hackathon. Bridging that gap by investing in immersion type experiences for techies in farms while developing a methodology already has been pioneered by Wennovation Hub and CTA in YEEFA Agrihack in Nigeria. This could go a long way in translating current problems to future solutions and markets. Both public policy advocates and their development partners such as banks, multilateral institutions, funders etc. have to invest more directly in suitable e-agriculture programmes in collaboration with stakeholders in the ecosystems, like incubators, accelerators, networks of angel investors, and organisations like AfriLabs that aggregate these efforts. This conversation must start and should result in precipitate efforts and actions.