Agrifoodtech investment in Africa hit US$482.3 million in 2021, up from $185 million in 2020, according to venture capital (VC) firm AgFunder’s recent Africa Agrifoodtech Investment Report. African agrifoodtech companies have collectively raised $1.1 billion since 2017 but the sector accounted for just about 10% of all VC investment on the continent last year, where fintech start-ups dominated fundraising.
Agrifood challenges and opportunities in Africa differ from Europe, the US, Asia and Latin America. African entrepreneurs are focusing their efforts on tech that can solve, bridge or circumvent poor infrastructure and fragmented supply chains.
How we made it in Africa takes a closer look at three agtech companies operating on the continent, as highlighted in the report.
Aerobotics, South Africa
James Paterson and Benji Meltzer launched Aerobotics in 2014 to transform everyday farming operations with technology that supports smarter business decisions and ensures a sustainable future. Using industry-leading computer vision for agriculture, the South African start-up provides precision farming insights for growers to better measure, manage and protect their yields.
The founders describe Aerobotics as a “farming company, enabled by technology,” rather than a tech company that is focused on farming. The distinction is important in a sector with a growing range of tech solutions promising to support farmers’ livelihoods, Paterson told AgFunderNews. “Farming is a specialised industry that requires one to fully understand its intricacies to succeed in serving that niche.”
How it works
Aerobotics collects, processes and analyses multi-temporal and multispectral imagery from drones, fixed-wing aircraft, satellites, and field-based samples and sensors. This data is used by its proprietary agronomic computer vision-based models to provide decision support for growers.
Aerobotics’ precise insights guide growers to underperforming areas affected by pests, diseases, irrigation issues or nutrient deficiencies. Growers can track the impact of interventions and monitor crop development over time.
The end-to-end yield solution allows fruit farmers, for instance, to digitally count and measure fruit in the field and determine how to take action at the ideal time using Aerobotics’ current and predictive yield reports.
The start-up supports more than 200 growers and has processed data on more than 180 million plants on 1.4 million acres around the world.
In July 2022, Aerobotics’ announced a new tool that allows farmers to use mobile phones to size fruit in the orchard. The mobile-based platform will help Aerobotics’ customers capture data pertaining to yield at a higher frequency, boosting farmers’ ability to make timely decisions to achieve their targets.
“The goal is to help farmers optimise and secure their production and yields,” said Paterson. “We identify where they are getting subpar yields or subpar performance, then we work with farmers to fix those problems and track over time how they are improving.”
Apollo Agriculture, Kenya
Across most of Africa, average yields of staple crops like maize hover around 20% of global averages. This low level of productivity has a significant impact on both farmer’s financial well-being and food security in rural communities. Apollo Agriculture’s mission is to help small-scale farmers maximise profits and transition to commercial farming.
Apollo operates as a “one-stop-shop” for essential farming products and services, selling inputs like fertilisers and high-quality seeds, offering agronomic advice and farmer training, and providing access to financing, insurance and markets. It leverages its technology to empower small-scale farmers with the tools and the financing they need to succeed.
Apollo has several seasons of operating experience in Kenya, serving over 160,000 farmers. In early 2022, it raised a $40 million Series B funding round to serve farmers in new markets and growing a wider range of crops.
Of concern is the fact that small-scale farmers are disproportionately affected by rising fertiliser prices and climate change-related weather events. The company says it continuously builds upon its technology, agronomic advice and product offerings to help farmers adapt to these challenges and increase their resilience.
Apollo’s team told AgFunderNews that on a recent field visit, a farmer pointed out their field, where half had been planted with Apollo inputs and half without. The farmer remarked that the Apollo half would yield more than the entire farm did last year. “Each time our team goes into the field, we witness the power of Apollo’s work and we realize that happy farmers are the most powerful customer acquisition channel,” the team said.
Building a large business with strong financial fundamentals is possible with excellent execution, strong technology and a conviction in the African opportunity, the Apollo team said.
“We are excited about opportunities arising from increasing smartphone adoption across Africa and emergence of digitally-enabled, low-cost solutions in agriculture and fintech,” they added. “We are also optimistic about opportunities to take more climate-smart agricultural practices to our customers.”
Farmerline, headquartered in Ghana, is a marketplace for farmers co-founded in 2013 by Allosyius Attah and Emmanuel Addai. The company’s goal is to create lasting wealth for farmers by streamlining a fragmented agrifood supply chain and empowering smallholders with resources, education and services to increase their productivity and incomes.
The company provides West Africa’s smallholder farmers with access to high-quality fertilisers and seeds, free education on climate-smart farming practices (via SMS and voice messages in local languages), and connections to international markets. The company has financed roughly $18 million worth of inputs and crops through franchise shop alliances with agribusinesses and input dealers.
“The challenge of agricultural market access is beyond supply and demand, because the logistics to move food in large quantities while maintaining quality is difficult,” Attah told AgFunderNews. “Very few start-ups are able to play in that space.”
Farmerline collects farm-level data to provide farmers with crop-yield prediction, forecasts of fertiliser needs, and product traceability. Its AI-powered platform, called Mergdata, is licensed by global food traders and manufacturers, government agencies and agri-businesses, which use it to support their own decision-making and build customised tools for farmers in their network. Farmerline has built partnerships with over 3,000 such organisations, which collectively suppport more than one million farmers in 26 countries.
Attah and Addai bootstrapped the business and grew its reach through revenues until April 2022, when the company raised its first institutional funding round.
April 2022 saw Farmerline receive its first institutional cheque with which it was keen to use on expansion and building its logistics and supply chain operations. The company secured nearly $13 million in a mixed debt-equity round. The equity portion was backed by Acumen’s Resilient Agriculture Fund and Dutch development bank FMO, while debt was provided by DEG, Rabobank, Ceniarth, Rippleworks, Kiva and others.
The company recently launched into its second market, Côte d’Ivoire. “The name of the game is trust and infrastructure,” said Attah. “We had to build infrastructure to drive partnership attention to agriculture. Our trust network has helped us to build both the physical and virtual infrastructure we need to support farmers.”