‘Building an Africa that feeds itself’ is what RiceAfrika says it’s out to accomplish. Ibrahim Maigari its founder and CEO believes that if we’re serious about building an Africa that feeds itself, we have to invest in mechanization.
Maigari, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, says he ventured into agriculture out of passion but his findings on manual harvesting gutted him.
“I was dumbfounded that as much as we have drones spraying chemicals over farms and we have applications linking farmers with fertilizers, we still allowed the farmers at the end of the day, to bend down or use manual labor to harvest,” Maigari tells AFN.
What started as a platform to facilitate engagement between farmers and input providers, quickly spun into one that would avail clustered Nigerian rice farmers with mechanization services.
The challenge RiceAfrika is solving is one that is often overlooked. Farmers will most of the time have access to extension services such as agronomy advice, access to affordable and quality inputs and markets – which are much needed. But at the end of the day, how can African smallholder farmers harvest in an efficient way? In a way that does not waste valuable man hours and leave gaps for massive wastage due to manual harvesting?
RiceAfrika’s efforts uncover other societal issues born from manual harvesting – school goers skipping school to work during peak harvesting seasons and the exclusion of women in the wealth building opportunities in agriculture.
Maigari (IM) speaks to AFN about RiceAfrika’s mandate and addressing these societal issues amid the startup’s aggressive expansion plans, starting with East Africa.
AFN: What was your background in? And how did you get into optimizing rice supply chains in Nigeria?
IM: I have background in law, but I’m passionate about agriculture. So I got into it and I got into technology to mainstream the agriculture sector. There are opportunities in the agriculture value chain, especially when integrated with affordable and accessible technology.
It kind of caught my attention when I saw what our government was doing regarding the rice sector. As you know, Nigeria is a country of over 200 million people and we rely heavily on imported rice. This current government came in and started to reverse the trend by creating what they call the Anchor Borrower Scheme. It started creating a lot of initiatives to boost local rice production.
Seeing that the government is doing its bit, we felt it’s always necessary for the private sector to chip in, especially coming as we were coming from a tech background.
We decided to create RiceAfrika as a platform in early 2020 and at that time Covid-19 had disrupted everything. The objective back then was basically to create a platform that will facilitate interaction amongst stakeholders in the value chain that could link farmers and input sellers and additionally source potential buyers.
AFN: Did you face any challenges starting out?
IM: About two months after starting that, we were hit by a much bigger problem that really changed our perspective. We saw that the biggest problem that most local farmers had was not about facilitating interaction, even though they needed that.
The biggest problem then and still now is they lacked mechanized harvesting.
I felt gutted to my core. I was dumbfounded that as much as we have drones spraying chemicals over farms and we have applications linking farmers with fertilizers, we still allowed the farmers at the end of the day to bend down or use manual labor to harvest. I was devastated. We found that about one acre of a rice farm took 30 people to harvest in a span of 24 hours and the quantity would be ranging between 20 to 25 bags.
And because they’re smallholder farmers, they don’t have the resources to acquire harvester machines that are between $40,000 to $50,000. So we created a business model around that, acquired harvesting machines and we created a harvester hiring system.
We pivoted to a platform that’s facilitating access to mechanical harvesting services. That’s one of the good things about a startup, there’s flexibility.
We then created an agency system around those communities whereby our community agents aggregate those farmers for the sake of harvesting and they could pay in cash or with grains.
AFN: How did the community react to your technology?
IM: When we started and became popular we started to notice that most smallholder farming communities reject mechanization. The manual labor force in rural communities is a very strong block and they posed a very strong resistance because to them, mechanization is going to render them, especially their youth, unemployed.
So what we did was we flipped this upside down, and we started training those manual laborers. We started upskilling them to become harvester operators, mechanics and booking agents and that really changed the game.
That was when we got noticed by the World Economic Forum’s Circulars Accelerators program, because instead of having people to harvest one acre in 24 hours to get 24 bags, one machine could do that in 30 minutes. In terms of quantity they can get around 35 bags.
The cost which comes to about $60 per acre is cheaper than acquiring 30 people, paying them and feeding them as they worked and having to deal with post harvest losses due to no accountability while harvesting.
The $60 range came about due to the spike in fuel prices but it used to be around $40 or $50 per acre.
Another very critical thing is that in most smallholder farming communities, which is especially in Northern Nigeria, we saw a lot of young girls working as manual laborers.
I have daughters and this concerned me because I knew they should be in school. They told me that during the harvesting season, because of the high demand of labor, their parents sent them into the rice farms to work.
We realized that our machines’ presence in those communities sort of allowed these young girls now to go back to school. So that is an impact that we never saw coming.
AFN: Are there any other gender-aligned milestones are you looking to hit?
IM: Only 10% to 15% of the wealth is shared at the food production level and 80% of the activities involved are in production.
On the other part of the value chain, which is packaging and processing that takes about 90% to 85% of the wealth you have less participation of women.
What we’re trying to do as a company now is to look at what are the limiting factors that are culturally and societally inhibiting the participation of women in the relative distribution of the value chain. This is packaging, processing, becoming booking agents and input suppliers. That’s where the wealth is and our next phase is seeing how we can involve women in these activities.
AFN: What other significant impact have you seen working with these communities?
IM: The impact is multifaceted. If you start from the point of view of production, the difference between manual and mechanical harvesting per hectare is about 2.8 tonnes.
We’ve saved over 20 million kilograms of grains to date. And I think this quantity of grains saved has the capacity to feed over 60 million people. We’ve also been able to save over 60 000 labor hours.
Without mechanization, they would have to produce more land and more water to get the yield I mentioned.
AFN: Your model is very capital intensive. How were you able to purchase this machinery when you were starting out?
IM: We pooled our resources and we’ve got some angel investors at the beginning that committed resources. We virtually bootstrapped and had some debt structuring with our financial partners and debt is very expensive in Africa. But acquiring our machines though debt and equity is not favorable to push our expansion.
The biggest problem that we’re facing right now is meeting demand. 3.2 million hectares of land is harvested annually in Nigeria alone. 92% of the 3.2 million hectares is harvested manually. And that’s not just Nigeria. This is the same pattern in Tanzania, Kenya, Gambia, Ghana.
You cannot meet the demand of mechanical harvesting and if we’re serious about building an Africa that feeds itself, we have to invest in mechanization.
AFN: Are you eyeing other markets apart from Nigeria?
IM: We registered our platform as RiceAfrika and not RiceNigeria. Why? Because our horizon has always been Africa. From Casablanca to the Cape in South Africa, from Tanzania to Kenya, We’ve always been thinking about the African brand because we know the pinpoints shared by farmers in Tanzania is the same in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda in Zimbabwe.
When we got into the World Economic Forum’s Circulars Accelerators program, our business model was really exploited and shared by the participants, facilitators and promoters of the program because we were made to believe that even though the market is in Nigeria, you are not going to just service Nigeria’s market alone in the next 10 years.
The rationale was, this problem that farmers are facing in Nigeria is also faced by other farmers in other parts of Africa and by concentrating on one country alone, somebody could come up with a model that might not be as good as what we have, and it will discourage the farmers from adopting mechanization.