We innovate around farmers’ challenges – Uka Eje, CEO, Thrive Agric
Thrive Agric is a startup that rolled out initially to raise money from individuals to fund local farmers. Since launching in 2017, the digital platform has onboarded over 35,000 farmers, many of who now enjoy extensive services. The triumph of the business model speaks volume about the immense opportunities available for tech savvy and smart entrepreneurs in Nigeria. In this interview, Uka Eje, the CEO of the agrotech startup talked to one of Nigeria’s leading niche media, Techpoint, about the business and how it is approaching the disruptive pandemic.
Since launching in 2017, Thrive Agric has come a long way. Can you say the startup is where you envisioned three years ago?
Three years in, we have experienced exponential growth and it is humbling to keep moving the goalposts as the results come in. We started this with a huge vision to build a Food Secure Africa that feeds itself and the world, and this has become even clearer as we go along.
I remember when it was just 1,000 farmers and then 10,000 in another year. We moved from 10,000 to 35,000 farmers by the end of 2019. There is something we always say and that is “prioritise on the farmers” and for the longest, the harder we focused on the farmers’ challenges and innovated around them, the easier it was for us to scale.
The reality of the agriculture business from where we see it is one of spotting opportunities along the value chain and in fact, the possibilities are endless. Did we on our first day think that we would be a major produce supplier for some of Nigeria’s largest FMCG and staple food brands? We dreamt of it no doubt and we have had overwhelming results so far. This is definitely bigger than we envisioned and what has that taught us? Keep raising the bar and when you think it is high enough, raise it again.
Coming into this year, no one thought a pandemic and its resulting lockdowns would disrupt businesses all over the world. What challenges did this bring to Thrive Agric?
One thing the pandemic has opened our eyes to see is that we are operating in a very critical sector: food. And that awareness alone has driven us to esteem our work more highly than we did. From a platform that receives money from individuals to fund farmers, to a platform that has built technology solutions to increase farmer onboarding, field mapping, extension services, farming efficiency, and data gathering, this full package has enabled farmers to increase their yield multiple folds.
This doesn’t go without a few challenges here and there. One of the major challenges we had to overcome was the restriction of movement which slowed down farmer onboarding and movement of input (seeds, fertilizers, and agrochemicals) from the input companies to our farmer clusters. With an efficient aggregation framework that puts the farmers in clusters, we have been able to effectively link major input providers to farmers and also link the farmers to large off-takers alongside the informal markets.
Another challenge we have had to face in recent times has been managing delays of our off-takers in paying for goods delivered. This operational challenge has caused temporary delays in paying a few of our users; so what we did was to be transparent and then commit to a time period for the payments to be made. None of what we’ve built would have been possible without them, and it’s really been heart-warming seeing their reception and total understanding.
As a key stakeholder in the production of food, an essential service in Nigeria, how has the thinning of agritech’s supply chain affected the company?
One of agriculture’s biggest challenges, especially at this time, has been last-mile disruptions. Local food markets are the backbone of the informal agriculture economy, supplying the majority of food that eventually ends up on tables. City and nationwide lockdowns, and government policies closing markets and restricting public gatherings, could prove disastrous, not just for the traders. Even more importantly, input distribution and access to markets for the farmers’ produce will be disrupted, leading to a reduction in food production, and obvious food loss, as they are disconnected from the distribution and supply chains.
So what are we doing at this time? We are leveraging our digital product — an Agriculture Operating System (AOS) — to be used by our field agents, farmers, extension service, and sales for their harvests, while digitising how cash moves all through the cycle. This AOS has been able to digitally collate credit-worthy farmers on the field and match them with their field size and GPS locations.
We recently onboarded over 150,000 farmers for crop operations. We are investing in our agent network in six core zones (Kaduna, Kebbi, Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, and Plateau) in Nigeria. Our target is to work with and drive agricultural productivity and economic prosperity for over 250,000 farmers over the next 12 months on our platform.
We are currently scaling the number of farmers with access to finance through partnerships with commercial banks and other institutional investors. The goal is to provide input financing in addition to ours while riding on our existing technology platform and growing farmer’s network. With an increase in our financing pool, we can provide the farmers with quality inputs directly from the input providers, alongside agronomy support and insurance for their farms. This approach helps us derive competitive advantages from the economies of scale and also reach more farmers.
So in essence, Thrive Agric is raising money from banks and institutional investors to finance the recently onboarded farmers. But why are you doing this?
We typically do not see this period as one that demands that we step on the brakes; in fact, we are doing the opposite. We are choosing to respond counter-intuitively in the massive way we already are because we can’t go wrong with increased food production in a time where food security is threatened as has been indicated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
What is the best way to support this level of growth especially in the exponential way that we are experiencing it? We thought to make a strategic move to take advantage of microeconomic indicators pointing positively in our direction. We spotted opportunities with larger corporates and financial institutions that are better suited to manage the scale of our work, the times we are currently in, as well as the inner operating dynamics.
This period has made us lean harder towards sustaining the right stakeholder engagement as the basis to drive the kind of increased food production that a period like this demands. The array of services that we are currently providing will increase farmers’ yields and incomes and reduce the pre and post-harvest loss for the farmers which will, in turn, improve profitability across the value chain for Thrive Agric with attendant impacts on the employment rate in host communities especially at a time like this.
On another note, how concerned are you with the recent Securities and Exchange Commission regulation towards crowdfunding startups, especially with regards to the capital requirement of ₦100 million needed for registration?
In the past few months, we have been giving clarity to this particular question, because it, in fact, calls for that level of detail. The draft regulations by the SEC show progress and are part of numerous conversations that we have been having with the investment protection body, especially to help them understand the inner workings of the agriculture industry and how to protect the everyday investor.
What the regulation does is draw a line between those who raise funds for other operations and those in the digital commodities industry who are specific about tying crowdfunding rounds with specific projects on the farm. We have been very intentional about sharing regular multimedia updates with our users to showcase how their funds are helping us do more for farmers while earning them decent returns.
This is a great way to cater for our farm subscribers, protect their investments, provide clarity on how the funds will be used, and in all, a great way to provide accountability to the SEC.
Our work with farmers is visible and the regulations are a welcome development as they create the level of accountability and transparency that the industry demands. If we say we are funding farmers, then we should be able to put the facts together on the table, so regulations shouldn’t be a worry except we are doing otherwise.
Amidst all these challenges, what does the future hold for Thrive Agric?
We are focused on one thing regardless: Building an Africa that feeds the world and itself. We are making the best decision out of each opportunity presented, and in our experience, it comes together in ways that ultimately build for the farmer and creates value for them.
We are confident that every time spent in addressing and innovating around farmer challenges yields results. So yes, we are positive that these times indeed create a fantastic opportunity for us to address food security challenges and do better for the farmer while at it.