AYuTe Africa Challenge winners

Africa’s youth are ‘leading a revolution to transform African food systems’

By Jehiel Oliver, Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu

Posted on September 8, 2021 08:10

 © Alewynspoort, a farm in the south of Johannesburg, South Africa, August 25, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Alewynspoort, a farm in the south of Johannesburg, South Africa, August 25, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

We went to sleep last night as CEOs of African agritech companies emerging from the pandemic crisis. Today, we woke up as winners of the AYuTe Africa Challenge,  a competition run by Heifer International for businesses that brings technological innovation to the continent’s agriculture. Together, we will share $1.5m in cash grants to build our companies and help realise our dreams for Africa.

It will enable the company one of us started, ColdHubs, to build ten more solar-powered, digitally monitored, cold-storage units at rural produce markets throughout Nigeria. These units reduce food spoilage by 80% and can increase smallholder farmers’ annual income by up to 50%.

It will enable the other company, Hello Tractor, to pilot its pay-as-you-go tractor-financing product that will unlock low-risk, low-cost tractor loans for rural entrepreneurs servicing smallholder farmers, enabling these farmers to plant their fields efficiently when the timing is right.

Africa urgently needs innovative solutions that respond to an array of challenges and opportunities.

Both companies will create thousands of jobs along the way, generate significant profit for participating farmers and help build more efficient food systems across the continent.

But this prize is about far more than our companies.

It is about what Africa’s young agricultural technology entrepreneurs are doing and will do for the continent. A new generation of young business leaders, technophiles and agricultural experts are solving farm and food security dilemmas in real time, while positioning Africa to be a leader in agritech solutions.

Africa urgently needs innovative solutions that respond to an array of challenges and opportunities. The continent’s growing consumer demand for food products is expected to generate a market worth $1trn by 2030.

At the same time, changing climate and weather patterns, and pandemic disruptions heighten the challenges confronting food systems. One recent survey  found that some 40% of agriculture organisations were forced to close at least temporarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic and 36% still do not have the financial capital to grow back their businesses.

All this demands innovation, creativity and enterprise on the part of entrepreneurs and their funding partners.

We have seen how agritech can effectively address crucial gaps in access to information, finance and markets for farmers and food companies. Its products are often available through the phone in the pocket of any farmer. Other innovations use artificial intelligence, remote sensing, virtual reality, drone technology and other precision tools for measuring rainfall, controlling pests and analysing soil nutrients.

Yet, few of these tools have achieved large-scale use, and only 23% of young people engaged in agriculture in Africa use any form of agricultural technology. They are held back by a lack of financing, weak policy support and the desire for certainty in a return on their investments. Even more fundamentally, the view of agriculture as a development tool rather than as a business has stifled its growth.

As we have seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, the new generation of agritech entrepreneurs can help turn this situation around.

When measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus badly disrupted food systems, companies had to scramble to survive. This was also our experience. Hello Tractor quickly saw its supply chains shut down. Business activity slowed. Banks pulled back their lending. Curfews and lockdowns prevented us from moving equipment across county lines.

To get more tractors in use on the field, we created incentive programs, and hired our first sales agent. Using tools like WhatsApp for business, SMS, Facebook and Google ads, and direct calling, we ramped up our digital marketing to both tractor dealerships and smallholder farmers. In these ways, we have been able to keep the company operating, and even pursue new growth opportunities.

READ MORE Four ways to boost agricultural productivity in Africa

The pandemic had a dramatic impact on ColdHubs as well. Our income in 2020 was one-third of that in 2019. With roads and markets closed during pandemic lockdowns, we had to shift our focus from ColdHubs at markets, to units servicing farm clusters. Farmers who were able to use ColdHubs’ storage facilities close to their fields were able to extend the life of their crops for 21 days, and even outlast lock-downs, while other farmers saw their crops spoil, unharvested, in their fields.

We know of other entrepreneurs across the continent that have championed solutions for smallholder farmers throughout this pandemic. For example, in Rwanda, a group of four young people developed a mobile application “AGRITrials” to connect farmers who use Android phones with markets, experts and fellow farmers, and provide them with access to accurate farming information at a time when face-to-face meetings were impossible.

We’ve seen what Africa’s young agritech entrepreneurs can do, and the difference this makes for smallholder farmers. They are leading a revolution to transform African food systems. They need the support of government policy and innovative financing, whether through competitions like the AYuTe Africa Challenge, or through banks, credit unions, government agencies and business partners that understand the value of innovation, creativity and enterprise.

Jehiel Oliver is CEO and founder of Hello Tractor and Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is CEO and founder of ColdHubs. They are 2021 AYuTe Africa Champions.

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