Young Innovators Impress With Technology-led Solutions to African Farmers’ Problems

As Onyeka Akumah rose to speak about his Farmcrowdy app at one of the plenary sessions of the African Green Revolution Forum, in Kigali Rwanda, he seemed the typical image of a silicon valley techie.

Comfortable in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, he immediately stood out in a gallery crowded with crisp suits. But he went on to give a presentation that left everyone in awe.

His app allows users to invest in farming operations in Africa from anywhere in the world, without a direct involvement in the production processes promises, and guarantees annual returns of 15 percent.

“This is a product that offers profits for investors while making a positive impact in society,” said Akumah.

Farmcrowdy, which last year raised $1 million in a funding, serves as a link between people with money and farmers, who need financial support.

The app allows investors to select from an array of farming projects in Africa and offer a desired amount of money to support the development of the project through a secure payment channel.

The Farmcrowdy team then ensures that the funds are productively used and later, after harvests and sales, the profits are split three-ways; between the farmer (40%), the investor (40%) and the app (20%).

“In the last 20 months, the app has transacted almost $4 million,” said Akumah.

Akumah’s pitch, which came after two others – Sara Menker of big-data software Gro Intelligence, and Rose Goslinga of PULA, an agriculture insurance startup – set the pace for a discussion on the importance of innovation in solving the problems encountered by African farmers.

Among the major challenges identified, and which most speakers agreed needs constant attention, was access to markets.

“Any product that will ensure that farmers’ harvests reach the market in good time and at good prices will definitely succeed,” said Eric Kaduru, 2015 Yara Prize Laureate.

“You can offer every available solution to farmers’ challenges including provision of better seeds and fertilizers, but if their products don’t get to the market, then it all becomes a waste of time,” he added.

Professor Catherine Bertini, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, agreeing with Kaduru, noting that there is a paradigm-shift in the way Africa’s youth find solutions to presenting problems.

“Such technologies as Farmcrowdy are evidence that the modern-day disruption is unlike that from my generation, which was mainly driven by the desire for personal gain. The young people now show that they have the potential to find local and impactful solutions to problems encountered in the continent,” said Bertini.

In the end, it was agreed that the technologies being developed should have the ultimate goal of drawing more youth to farming.

“Soil sampling would never have been possible 20 years ago, and it is now a technology that is making farming a lot easier. Such problem-solving techniques are the sorts of ways in which this new age of farmers can be urged to get into productive farming,”  said Prof. Thomas Jayne, from the Department of Agricultural of the Michigan State University (MSU).

The end-goal, Prof. Jayne and others concluded, is to have as many young people as possible involved in farming, by increasing its appeal as a profitable and stable industry.