Uganda: How this CEO spotted a gap in the agricultural supply chain

In Uganda, agri-tech company Inputi is helping farmers to increase productivity by providing a digital marketplace to improve the sourcing of farm inputs – such as fertilisers and seeds – ultimately allowing them to access quality and genuine products at more affordable prices.

The idea of Inputi was sparked during the Covid-19 pandemic as countries like Uganda imposed strict lockdowns that led to significant disruptions in the supply chain. David Lukwago, a graduate of the Harvard University Kennedy School, saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market to provide access to farm inputs and boost agricultural productivity using digital technology. Last year the company received investment from Renew Capital.

In this interview, Inputi’s founder and CEO, David Lukwago, provides insights into the company’s strategy of using a digital platform to connect farmers, suppliers and manufacturers in the agricultural sector, and discusses the challenges and opportunities in the industry.

What is Inputi?

Inputi is a digital marketplace for the agriculture sector. We connect manufacturers and suppliers of quality and genuine farm inputs with agro-dealers and cooperatives that can hardly access them. Vendors upload e-catalogues of their products, which are then accessible to our agents or farmers. This transparent pricing approach makes farm inputs more affordable to farmers.

In the long term, we intend to grow our digital platform to include a produce-trading platform that links smallholder farmers to buyers.

What is your background that led you to Inputi? Were you involved in farming?

For a long time, I was on the market side. I used to buy maize from farmers and sell it to the World Food Programme. Our biggest challenge was that even when there was a demand from the market, the farmers struggled to meet the demand because their production was very little and there were problems with quality control.

After living in the United States for a while, I came back to Uganda and opened a non-profit with the intent to help farmers improve their practices and link them to markets. I have a lot of experience with setting up demonstration gardens and farming in general, and right now, we have nine demonstration gardens in different communities where we bring farmers together to learn the best farming practices and methods.

How is Inputi currently aggregating the demand for inputs?

One of our goals is to aggregate demand based on location. We are working to make the pickup of farm inputs as convenient as possible for farmers by delivering inputs to the nearest agro shop. For livestock farmers who have more mature and organised value chains, we deliver inputs through cooperatives. Customers are also able to order through our call centre, website, WhatsApp or through their agents. We are also testing the use of the USSD code for users that do not have a smartphone or internet connection.

What challenges have you encountered in the two years that Inputi has been operating?

Most farmers know that they need to use quality and genuine farm inputs to increase productivity, but uptake is usually hindered by the high costs of inputs. For example, a farmer may want to use quality fertiliser on his or her farm, but the cost of fertiliser is too high, so they resort to their old planting methods. This often leads to a decline in productivity. Inputi is solving the distribution headache for manufacturers while providing farmers with a diverse array of inputs and pricing transparency. Today, we have farmers walking into an agro shop knowing how much a bag of fertiliser costs.

Also, as a result of increased demand we are starting to see young women and men opening up agro shops closer to the farmers. It is still a bit early for us to draw substantive conclusions but I would imagine we are playing a part in youth empowerment and food security.

We also have farmers who have been growing the same type of crop on a small piece of land for years. The soils are exhausted and are no longer productive. While some argue that using inorganic fertilisers is not a solution due to potential environmental damage, the reality is that we don’t have an adequate supply of organic fertilisers, and when it is available, it is often too expensive for many farmers. This leaves us in a difficult position to choose between rendering farmers unproductive or providing them with the technology they need to increase productivity. In my opinion, the key issue is not the use of fertilisers or pesticides, but rather the wrong application of these inputs. By teaching farmers how to apply these inputs properly we can minimise the negative impact on the environment while still increasing yields.

What’s on your wishlist for the next 10 years?

My wish for the next 10 years is that everything shifts to organic and that we allow the market to dictate the products that consumers want. Widespread use of organic fertiliser is not yet a feasible alternative but I believe that promoting its use and making it more accessible to farmers is an essential step toward achieving long-term sustainability in agriculture.

Are there any additional points that you would like potential investors in Africa to understand?

The next one billion people born in the next 30 years are going to be on the African continent. This alone is going to pose a food security challenge. Demand is going up and currently, there’s enough data to show that food production is declining. One of the ways to solve this problem is to bring technology onto smallholder farms. Digital technology is going to help us leapfrog all these other broken pieces along the value chains.