Despite its huge agricultural potential, Africa’s local food production is crippled by the numerous challenges small-scale farmers face – such as a lack of access to market information and financing. The continent today relies heavily on food imports to feed its swelling population and the UN warns that if the current situation persists, Africa will only be fulfilling 13% of its food needs by 2050.
Yet the potential is there for these economies to not only feed themselves, but others in the world too. And in order to do this, solutions to the problems small-scale farmers face will need to be found.
Ghanaian entrepreneur, Alloysius Attah (26) has one solution to many of these problems – and it’s a simple one. In 2013 he and his business partner Emmanuel Addai co-founded Farmerline, a voice services and SMS platform to provide smallholders with improved access to information to make more informed decisions. Through a mobile app, these farmers receive important updates on market prices, weather forecasts, financing, input dealers, and farming tips. It also links them to agribusinesses and organisations who have previously struggled to access them.
The initiative has received the attention of a number of international awards and Attah is a winner of the World Bank and InfoDev mAgri Challenge and World Summit Youth Award. He was also named a 2014 Global Echoing Green Fellow.
And in just two years, Farmerline has grown to serve over 200,000 farmers in five countries – Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Nigeria – with plans to expand to East Africa by the end of the year.
Tailored information for farmers
When Attah was five, he went to live with his aunt who was a small-scale farmer in rural Ghana. He saw firsthand many of the struggles she, and others, faced on a day-to-day basis. In college, he furthered his understanding of agricultural matters while studying natural resource management – although he admits it was not his original intention.
“I actually thought the course was going to be about oil, gas and all that. But I soon realised it was about wildlife, forestry and agriculture,” he told How we made it in Africa.
“It is like fate somehow placed me in the path of agriculture.”
One of the problems he discovered was the Ghanaian government had only one agricultural extension officer for every 2,000 farmers to provide training and information, and they lacked the funding and infrastructure to visit and communicate with them frequently.
Attah’s initial solution was to help improve this communication by building a SMS platform. But after a few months of piloting the service, he realised a huge flaw: many rural farmers were illiterate and struggled to understand the SMS content.
“So we moved to voice messages. Now our application sends information to farmers in any language – such as Swahili or any of the local languages in Ghana,” he explained.
Information is also tailored specifically to individual farmers, to help them increase yields and profits. For example, weather forecasts are based on the GPS coordinates of where the farm is. And agronomic tips are constructed around the season and crops that each farmer is growing.
The company earns revenue through farmer associations which pay for the service for their members, as well as agribusinesses and other organisations who want to use the platform to connect with farmers to improve their supply network.
Good business in agriculture
Entrepreneurs can find business success in agriculture, said Attah. And he is living proof of the opportunities that exist in the sector.
“Coming from a normal rural Ghanaian background of limited resources, to becoming someone who can overcome challenges and use those limited resources to solve problems in society, makes my family and community proud.”
He admits that being 26 and running a company that affects the livelihood of over 200,000 farmers does give him many sleepless nights, but added he is lucky to have surrounded himself with a hardworking and capable team.
“The main driver of success at Farmerline is the quality team members we have. I think it’s time we start celebrating those who join start-up companies in the very early stages – they are the real heroes, not just the founders.”