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Photo credit: Wefarm

Earth Day: In Africa, agtech is Earth tech, even during a health crisis

April 22, 2020

One could be forgiven for forgetting that it is Earth Day. Or forgetting what day it is, full stop. While most of us are feeling wholly consumed by coronavirus news and disruptions, people in some corners of the world were already facing immediate, consuming and disruptive environmental incidents before the pandemic hit.

Like many startups, London-based digital farmer network and agriculture marketplace Wefarm has been fielding phone calls from investors checking in about how the business is faring in light of Covid-19. Wefarm’s network and client base are predominantly based in East Africa.

“The first time an investor reached out to ask about Covid, we pointed out that ‘locusts’ were trending more on our platform,” Wefarm founder Kenny Ewan tells AFN. (AgFunder is an investor in Wefarm. Learn more about why we invested here.)

The more than two million East African farmers signed on to Wefarm’s platform have been battling the worst locust swarms in decades. The pests, spawned by unseasonably heavy rains in recent months, consume as much food as 35,000 people per day. “It could potentially contribute to a major food security crisis in East Africa,” says Ewan.

Economic damages and losses across from the swarms could reach $8.5 billion by the end of 2020 and render millions of people food insecure, according to one World Bank estimate.

As alarming as it sounds, this isn’t a doom and gloom story. Technologies like Wefarm’s digital platform exemplify the role the agri-foodtech sector is playing in helping global food systems weather increasing and intensifying climate impacts.

Agri-foodtech in Africa is climate tech

Africa’s food and agriculture sector, which is dominated by smallholder farmers rather than large-scale, commercial growing operations, is known for being small and low-tech. Lack of venture capital flowing to agri-foodtech startups on the continent inhibits the sector’s pathway to digitization, modernization and growth.

Indeed, startups in Africa, where 15% of the global population resides, received only $282 million of nearly $20 billion in agri-foodtech venture capital investing in 2019, according to AgFunder’s most recent industry report. Nigerian startups claimed the lion’s share.

Yet where agricultural technologies are gaining traction on the continent, there is often a clear connection to climate change and environmental impact.

When Wefarm launched in 2015, the company’s aim was to build a network to allow farmers to connect with one another—online or offline—and share information and insights that are relevant to their land and businesses. Some of the most active engagement periods arise during unusual weather incidents, Ewan says.

Spotting patterns in trending topics and user data helps Wefarm corral resources that benefit its members. Last January, the company launched a marketplace to facilitate farmers’ access to verified, high-quality supplies and inputs. “Data is a powerful validation tool,” says Ewan.

From above…

While Wefarm’s platform uses simple cellular connectivity to identify and respond to African farmers’ needs, other companies are rolling out higher-tech solutions.

Last week, California-based Atlas AI raised a $7 million Series A funding round to offer satellite-based intelligence about farm yields and productivity in emerging markets, including Africa, to financial service providers, agribusinesses, governments, and development organizations.

“As this planet grapples with system-wide challenges from climate and habitat disruption to concomitant disease and poverty incursions, the Atlas AI team shows us a way forward: intelligent views with real predictive power,” Lewis Pinault, a partner at Atlas AI investor Airbus Ventures, said in a statement.

Dutch startup VanderSat is using satellite data to monitor soil and land health. It is then passing that information on to insurance companies that can provide crop insurance to smallholder farmers that are hard to reach, but particularly vulnerable to climate shocks like drought.

In Sweden, Ignitia analyzes tropical weather patterns and alerts farmers in Nigeria and other markets with forecasts. It offers the service to other actors in agricultural value chain as well.

And Nigeria’s Beat Drone uses, well, drones to help farmers map their plots and schedule targeted crop treatments to prevent overuse of chemicals while boosting land productivity.

… And from below

Other agri-foodtech startups are developing high-tech, ground-level solutions to bolster food and income security. AgBiome is working on an environmentally-friendly crop treatment that targets a common pest in Africa: the sweet potato weevil. The insect can have a devastating impact on a staple food item, causing 60% to 100% of crop losses if left untreated.

In Kenya, Safi Organics is making another type of earth-friendly crop input: nutrient-rich biochar fertilizer produced from agricultural waste like coffee and corn husks.

Illuminum Greenhouses and Futurepump, also in Kenya, are addressing water security with irrigation and greenhouse technology. Illuminum makes drip-irrigation systems and greenhouses that help farmers minimize water usage and stabilize growing conditions through indoor farming, while Futurepump manufactures solar-powered irrigation pumps designed specifically for smallholder farmers.

And once growing seasons end, there is a range of companies on the continent helping farmers mitigate post-harvest losses due to environmental exposure and pests. InspiraFarms offers East African and Central American farmers access to cold storage and processing facilities. Kenya-based Solar Freeze is among a handful of cold-chain technology companies that make individual renewably-powered storage units for smallholder farmers. And Nigeria’s Coating+ makes a bio-based edible food protectant that extends the shelf life of fresh food. The coating runs a double-duty, providing supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Covid-19 response

At the time of publication, the current health pandemic is intensifying in Africa, and with it, a devastating economic impact that will ripple out into farming communities as border closures and city lockdowns restrict the movement of goods. By leveraging data and insights, the tech sector, particularly communication platforms like Wefarm, is in a unique position to respond.

Wefarm has seen an uptick in members discussing Covid-19, says Ewan. For health-related questions and comments, the company is redistributing official information from local governments to prevent the spread of misinformation. Its more significant response to the crisis, however, deals with logistics and supply chain disruptions: Wefarm has just rolled out a delivery service to bring marketplace goods directly to farmers.

“Normally farmers go to retailers on the marketplace to pick up their supplies. Our thinking is, if it’s going to be harder for them to get to markets and stores, we’ll bring the stores to them,” says Ewan.

The ability to pivot quickly to identify and meet customers’ needs as they change is “the benefit of startup culture,” Ewan adds. He also says it is necessary in the markets that Wefarm serves, where the company may be farmers’ only consistent source of information. 

“A lot of the information available on Covid-19 is very Western and urban-focused. But the economies in developing countries are much more dependent on rural areas,” Ewan observes. “Whether it is locusts or Covid-19, both are such extreme things that we need to make sure [people in rural areas] get accurate information.”

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