Agri-tech: Three African start-ups innovating in agricultural transformation

By Maureen Songne
Posted on Tuesday, 23 August 2022 12:17

Ikenna Nzewi. ©DR

Sustainable proteins, premium products, technologies to streamline the production chain...The start-ups EntomoNutris, Jus Délice and Releaf are betting on innovation to enhance the continent's riches.

Ikenna Nzewi – Releaf (Nigeria)

Industrialising food processing thanks to technology is the dream of Ikenna Nzewi, CEO and co-founder of Releaf, a Nigerian start-up that develops technical and technological solutions linking farmers and agri-food factories, one of the continent’s weak points.

Nzewi was still a student at Harvard when the idea came to him in 2017. He started from the observation that in his country, the value chain – both in terms of production and processing – was not very efficient in a vegetable oil market that, according to Releaf, is worth nearly $3 billion annually.

The sector is still highly fragmented, with small-scale oil palm farmers accounting for 80% of total production on over 1.6 million hectares across the country. But due to technical shortcomings in harvesting and poor stock management, manufacturers face two problems: poor quality raw material and losses during the collection process.

This is where the start-up’s innovative solutions come in. These include a geolocation tool to identify the nearest factories to producers (or to determine the best place to set up a factory depending on production); technology to facilitate nut cracking, used in a factory with a capacity of 500 tonnes of nuts per month in Uyo; and software that allows partner producers to manage their stocks. All these tools are designed to decentralise agricultural processing, one of the keys to success, according to Releaf.

In just eighteen months of operation, the start-up has developed a network of 1,000 smallholders supplying food factories with over 10,000 tonnes of nuts. It has also invested in improving the factories’ equipment and plans to extend its model to other agricultural products. Currently, in the seed stage, Releaf has completed a $2.7m seed round led by Samurai Incubate Africa, Future Africa and Consonance Investment Managers with participation from Stephen Pagliuca, chairman of Bain Capital, and Justin Kan (Twitch). Agritech also received $1.5 million from the Challenge Fund for Youth Employment (CFYE) and USAID.

Mohamed Derdour – EntomoNutris (Morocco)

Biology and technology meet agriculture. Mohamed Derdour, who graduated from HEC Montréal in 2021 and worked for the Moroccan pharmaceutical group MediPro Pharma and the giant GSK, decided in 2020 to launch his own start-up, EntomoNutris, in the promising business of insect breeding, entomoculture.

Convinced that a sustainable solution must be found to ensure food security in the face of galloping population growth (+7.6% worldwide, +27% in sub-Saharan Africa expected between 2020 and 2030), he is banking on this niche to meet the demand for meat.

Insects are rich in protein, essential fatty acids and minerals, and are highly nutritious. “Raising them requires a hundred times less space and 2,200 litres less water than raising cattle,” says Derdour.

Voted best start-up of 2022 in three Moroccan entrepreneurship competitions, EntomoNutris produces insect meal for animal feed (poultry) in its Marrakech pilot centre. It also produces bio fertilisers using excrement from its black soldier fly farm for use in agriculture, aquaculture and gardening and is working on setting up a distribution and marketing network.

According to UN estimates, the global market for insects for food and feed use could reach $8 billion by 2030, growing at an annual rate of 24% over the next ten years. In Africa, insects farmed and fed on agricultural waste could produce up to $2.6 billion in crude protein and up to $19.4 billion in organic fertiliser. There are already more than 850 insect farms on the continent, producing food and feed for human and animal consumption.

The start-up, which has set up a subsidiary in Canada, hopes to market 60% of its products in Morocco and 40% in the North American market. It is considering raising funds to accelerate its development, which would be based on improving its breeding model (“intelligent and connected”) and diversifying its product range.

Gustav Bakoundah – Jus Délice (Togo)

At the head of Label d’Or, the main producer and exporter of organic products in Togo since 2012, Gustav Bakoundah decided in 2017 to create Jus Délice, specialising in the processing of organic pineapples. “We needed to position ourselves around a premium product to distinguish ourselves from the competition and find a solution to crop wastage,” explains the CEO, who relies on a network of more than 7,500 farmers organised into cooperatives and spread across the pineapple, papaya, mango and oilseed sectors.

After local banks refused to finance Jus Délice outright, Moringa, an investment fund that finances social impact agroforestry projects in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, approached the company in 2018 and took a stake in its capital by injecting €2.6 million.

The investment was used to build a modern processing plant. As a result, Jus Délice produces 4 million litres of pineapple juice per year, shipped in 220-litre drums to industrial bottlers, traders and other customers. Since 2020, the company has doubled its turnover every year. It hopes to reach €4.2 million by 2022.

According to the Togolese government’s latest estimates, pineapple production grew by 11.6% between 2017 and 2019, from 27,000 to 30,149 tonnes. The sector is mainly export-oriented, with the organic market accounting for 20% of production.

Jus Délice is targeting the European market, with France, Germany and the Netherlands its main customers. Subject to further funding, the start-up plans to tackle the US market, develop other products (jams, dried fruit), and start processing shea nuts and soya beans, also produced by farmers in the Label d’Or network.

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