FEBRUARY 7, 2021 This newsletter is a weekly in-depth analysis of tech and innovation in Africa that will serve as a post-pandemic guide. Subscribe here to get it directly in your inbox every Sunday at 3 pm WAT
Ordering food is an important part of my work day. I screen for quality and price but time is the deal-breaker. A restaurant that always runs late ruins taste, is too expensive, and makes me less productive. It doesn’t matter if they use WhatsApp or an app that “leverages AI”; just don’t make me wait man.
I think of this while considering the blossoming marriage between technology and agriculture. In fundraising announcements, some agritech startups describe their mission as welding precision agriculture with precision engineering.
What does this mean, for farmers and dinner tables in African homes?
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Agritech tastes like new wine, but the grapes and wineskin have been maturing for ages.
During the Second Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors reached record heights of productivity thanks to ingenious new farming methods. You can draw a straight line from the 1600s’ Norfolk four-course system - a crop rotation system that juiced soil fertility and crop yield - to Elon Musk’s Teslas and Elsa Majimbo’s crispy Instagram Reels in the 2020s.
However, too much juice was unleashed within that timeline. From the 1940s, Baby Boomers tried to fast-track farming with pesticides and herbicides. It worked for a while - more food on more tables, more free time to invent Apple and the internet - but at serious cost. Moving fast on farms broke things on the planet.
Today, Africa lives with some consequences of that Green Revolution’s toxic fallout. From destructive locust attacks in East Africa and Ethiopia, to devastating pollution in Nigeria's Niger Delta wetlands.
And so another agric revolution is needed, one where strategic, specific information is trusted more than chemicals.
Africa wants to lead this
I am fascinated by the job descriptions on Aerobotics’ recruitment page. The South African startup recently closed a $17m Series B round to expand their global services.
They want to add Computer Vision Engineers, Software Engineers and Data Scientists to the team's headquarters in Cape Town. It’s a thrill to see these very fintech-y jobs requested by an African startup helping farmers grow better fruits and tree crops.
Aerobotics has data on over 100 million trees and 1 million fruits. They may soon obtain patents for tech that estimates tree age, and for predicting the yield of tree crops.
Gro Intelligence is the other multi-million-dollar-raising, AI-enabled, Africa-born startup solving global food problems. But I am also drawn to Agrocenta which curates market information on an app for small-scale farmers in Ghana and has raised $1.9 million in three years.
In Kenya, Apollo Agriculture’s app provides information about “everything a farmer needs to succeed” including seeds, fertilizer, and product management advisory. Releaf, a Y Combinator-backed Nigerian startup, pivoted from an agric goods marketplace to a logistics backbone for sourcing raw materials directly from small-scale farmers.
This is not a full list of hot agritech startups in Africa. But when you add Pula - a Kenyan farm insurance startup - to the above, it shows the variety of data-driven innovations aiming to re-organise and fill gaps across the agricultural value chain. From farm to factory to food.
Some reality check: Gro Intelligence and Aerobotics seem to have more traction in developed markets than in Africa. Agritech might be a $7.8 trillion industry but Africa lags other regions. In 2018, Africa’s agritech market produced $143 million worth of value out of an addressable market of $2.6 billion.
Work needs to be done for these solutions to be adopted on the continent. Government policy and private sector capital could be crucial activators. Also, if Big Data is the new oil and new juice for agriculture, everybody needs to be sober and watch out for side effects.
But our headline comes with good news: software is eating agriculture and Africa is at the head of the table. Shall we say grace?
FROM THE CABAL
Nigeria's war on crypto
At first, it seemed like the circular was fake due to comical errors in the copy, but it wasn't. Nigeria's Central Bank did it. It sent out that directive essentially stifling cryptocurrency transactions in the country. As a result, crypto exchanges have started rethinking their operations, beginning with moving their funds from banks.
When Njie left the UK to return to the Gambia in 1998, everyone thought he was crazy. Today, the Internet Service Provider company he founded in the West African country is worth millions of dollars. He told Edwin the whole story.
I am curious about how young people become influencers. So I called up Enioluwa Adeoluwa, a 21-year old catching the eye for his lip gloss videos on Instagram. He let me watch him work in his makeshift studio; this is what I saw and learned.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Every week, we ask our readers, stakeholders, and operators in Africa’s tech ecosystem what they think the new normal looks like. We share their thoughts and opinions in this section of The Next Wave. You can share yours with us via email [email@example.com] with ‘The Crystal Ball’ in the subject line.
TC INSIGHTS ~ with Michelle Adesina
Agritech beyond borders
Samuel is a cotton farmer in Zambia that needs to find more consumers for his business. A friend suggests that he reaches out to an agritech startup. He then approaches Good Nature Agro in Zambia who say that they only work with legume farmers. Unfortunately, there is no agritech startup offering working with cotton farmers in the country.
Agriculture is a huge component of many African economies due to the presence of a large expanse of arable land and its contribution to GDP. For this reason, agritech startups recognize the opportunities available on the continent: to plug into the huge market by solving the problems facing farmers.
As of 2018, there were 82 active agritech startups across the continent, however, most of the startups are concentrated in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, with the three countries accounting for more than 60% of the total number.
Kenya is recognized as an agritech leader on the continent with 2010 and 2011 ushering in the first wave of agritech startups. However, by 2015, there was a rise in agritech startups in West Africa and now the region is home to Farmcrowdy and other popular agritech startups.
Although these strides are encouraging, most African countries do not have access to the technological advancement that agritech startups bring. It could be speculated that these startups are concentrated in the 3 afore-mentioned countries because they consider the markets as larger than the others.
A spread of agritech startups into the unexplored markets in other parts of Africa will go a long way in improving the state of food security on the continent and will also help to increase the ease of trade within and outside the continent.
Furthermore, growth in the agriculture sector is said to be 11 times more effective in lifting people out of poverty than any other sector.
Thank you for taking the time to read today’s edition of The Next Wave. Remember to stay safe when you are out in public places-- protect others by wearing your mask and sanitizing your hands.
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