When an AgriFood Startup Pitch Competition is Truly Global, Smallholders Win

Christine Gould has been running the Thought for Food (TFF) Challenge and Summit for six years now. But this year a contest usually saturated with biotech and digital startups had an entirely different theme among its applicants.

For the TFF Challenge, 10 startups were chosen to pitch at the TFF Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Eight came from the developing world and six involved some interaction with smallholder farms. The summit overall hosted attendees from more than 30 countries.

“This year we had more entries than ever —800 from 160 countries — but they were all very local,” Gould told AgFunderNews after the July 27 event. Gould and her team had not realized that the finalists had been so smallholder-focused prior to the event, but when asked, it was easy for them to guess why. According to the International Finance Corporation, 450 million smallholder farmers feed 80% of the developing world.

“This year was definitely more weighted toward smallholder economies. You see the realities when you leave America and Europe. It’s often simple solutions: Simple data solutions, simple food preservation…” said Gould.

The challenge and summit have taken place in Europe for the past five years. This was its first foray to another continent, and to a developing economy, and smallholder-focused startups were the result.

RiseHarvest is one such finalist. The three young cofounders started their venture out of a shared desire to benefit poor smallholders in Myanmar, where cofounder Chandan Kumar is originally from. The Australian company is developing an app that will make fertilizer recommendations to smallholder rice farmers based on soil sandiness, leaf color, location and planting time.

“After 50 years of war and economic isolation farmers there have been isolated from the outside world so they don’t know how much fertilizer to apply. The government support has been very limited so we’re working on bringing the soil testing and the lab science that you get in developed countries and putting that in a smartphone app,” said cofounder Joseph Shen.

Shen and his cofounders will use Kumar’s local connections on the ground to fine tune and spread the app, made possible by roughly 80% mobile phone penetration even among rural populations in Myanmar.

“In the future we’d really like to take precision agriculture to smallholder farmers and enable them to do variable rate applications across their farms and really optimize their fertilizer use,” said cofounder Sam Coggins.

Other smallholder solutions who pitched at TFF included:

Coating+ (Nigeria) – A safe coating for plants and vegetables that extends their shelf life, preserves nutrient quality and enables post-harvest food storage.

Group Nutricandies (Brazil) – A vegetable-based, highly-nutritious, chocolate-flavored food product that is sourced from smallholder farmers.

Likabs Food (Ghana) – A franchise-based model that empowers smallholder farmers to safely farm snails, providing an alternative income stream and improving nutritional access.

RiseHarvest (Australia) – A digital extension service that provides site-specific nitrogen fertilizer recommendations for smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia.

Safi Sarvi (Kenya and USA) – A village-level fertilizer production system that delivers local access to high-quality fertilizer.

SunRice (Malaysia and UK) – A passive-solar grain drying service with guaranteed market purchases for the subsequently higher-value grain.

A small indication that smallholders may one day gain the attention and investment that their global number would seem to warrant (500 million according to the UN) comes from German seed company KWS, a sponsor of the TFF Summit.

“We’re certainly thinking about our strategy for the next five,10, 15, 20 years and thinking about smallholders as a big part of that — particularly thinking about how to get into some of the regions of the world that we’re not already in now,” said Lorelei Davis, head of KWS’s Digital Innovation Accelerator.

Davis explained that KWS is exploring whether startups in the developing countries where KWS seeks to expand its presence may be a good way to enter new markets.

It’s Gould’s mission to build a bridge between these young startups, especially from developing nations, and corporations that need innovation and local expertise.

“So much of the investment conversation is about getting the investment. We ask, how do I get the impact? How do we impact more people in a  better and faster way?” With this question at the center it’s no wonder that smallholders dominate the conversation at the 2018 TFF Summit. The question that even Gould is asking now is does this apparent uptick in smallholder-focused startups represent a trend in the overall market? Next year’s applications will tell.

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