Entrepreneurs and technology innovators in the field of e-agriculture have been given a gift by the Nigerian government. For those of you not familiar with the term, e-agriculture refers to the “enhancement of agricultural and rural development through improved information and communication processes” (Wikipedia).
PUNCH magazine’s December 17, 2012 quotes the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Adeshina Akinwunmi as saying that the Federal Government was working on a project to give 10 million phones to farmers in 2013 and five million of these devices will go to women farmers. The Minister reported that the purpose of the government mobile phone handout was to “drive financial inclusion” of the farmers. “I have seen what the power of private sector finance can do to the sector. As an agriculture expert, I can tell you authoritatively that if our finance sector could be more proactive, there are a lot of investment opportunities in this sector.”
Wow, as far as e-agriculture innovators are concerned the government is laying down a huge addition to the infrastructure grid. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with more than 160 million people. Most urban Nigerians have at least one mobile device. Many mobile applications developed for the devices have served the needs of the urbanites. With the government plans to equip 10 million rural people with phones the doors are open for a brand new, under-served market that will soon be crying out for applications that will make life easier and more profitable for them. In fact the Nigerian government’s hope using the phones to empower the farmers will not be fulfilled without new e-agriculture applications.
Opportunity for Tech Innovators
I am confident that many of Nigeria’s farmers already have cell phones. However, they are indeed among the first generation of African, rural, farmers who own, or have access to, such devices. The phones have the potential of giving them access to personal communication and information.
International development organizations are abuzz with ideas of how to use these phones to help farmers. I can tell you that most of what the aid agencies and world development organizations will come up with will either be too complicated for the farmers or be unsustainable over the long haul, or both. They have a track record of providing such non-sustainable “help.” Private sector e-agriculture innovators are best positioned to provide sustainable applications.
Some people would say “how can people who earn less than $2 per day pay for such apps and services?” What we are talking about here is empowering the farmers to move out of the $2 per day confines. Further good news for the farmers is that there are other stakeholders in the agricultural sector who have deeper pockets who will pay for the apps and the services. Here are just a few of such stakeholders:
- fertilizer companies and merchants will pay to push their products
- seed companies will do the same
- agricultural produce buyers will pay to have access to the farmers
- and aid and development agencies will pay for access to the data that can be collected from and about the farmers
Why will they pay? These stakeholders, just like the entrepreneur who will developed the apps, want to make money. They will pay for a premium presence on the app. Such a model does not depend on grants or aid that will dry up. It is sustainable.
What kind of services do the agricultural community need that apps can be built to provide? Here are just a few ideas, many of them are presently being provided to farmers on other continents:
- buyers need to know where ripe produce is available for purchase today.
- farmers need to know what their colleagues, elsewhere in the country, are being paid for produce similar to theirs
- what seeds are fellow farmers finding to produce the most produce
- what fertilizers are working best in similar soil
- what are the predicted, near term weather patterns
- information about pest outbreaks and remedies
- where are training courses being offered
- government and NGO agricultural extension workers need to be able to inexpensively followup with farmers in areas where they have held seminars and workshops
In Sub-Saharan Africa, small scale farmers often still struggle with generating enough profit from their farming activities. Their individual approach to buyers puts them at a disadvantage. A comprehensive mobile app would include a portal through which local farmers could collaborate and cooperate – bargaining for prices of fertilizer, seed and farm implements. These same farmers could pool their produce together giving them the collective power to negotiate higher prices for their produce.
Take Advantage of the Opportunity
The agriculture sector has been largely overlooked or undeserved by technology entrepreneurs. Farming is a vital sector, if not the most vital, in Africa. African innovators would do well to pour some creative energy into e-agriculture. American and European innovators can profit from partnering with Africans who know the agricultural landscape on the continent. If you are interested in partnering with Africans, for profit, lets talk (firstname.lastname@example.org).