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No one doubts the booming status of the tech ecosystem in Nigeria, but taking a closer look at where the action is happening would reveal that much of the noise is being made by players in the ecommerce space, followed by education, and so on. Strangely though, little is really happening in the agricultural space. That was until I met Oluwajoba Ayo Okediji, the founder and director of AgroInfoTech.
In an interview, we spoke extensively on what is happening in the agricultural-tech space, the prospects and ongoing plans to launch Nigeria’s incubation hub for agriculture-focused tech startups.
Ventureburn: Why is tech important in agriculture, especially in the Nigerian context?
Oluwajoba Ayo Okediji: ICT has been changing all aspects of human endeavor over the years — from hospitality to tourism but agriculture has been left behind.
I’ve been working with some agro companies over the years and the rate of acceptance of new technologies is gradually growing. I have been working on ICT in agriculture for over six years now and little or no attention has been paid to the industry when compared to the rate of ICT solutions for agriculture in the developed economies.
In the Nigerian context, agriculture is gradually being redefined not as an age-long occupation but as a business hence the urgent need for new technologies to be made available to add value.
VB: So what spaces do you think tech can fill in agriculture?
OAO: Tech can fill a lot of spaces, the problems across the value chain need urgent solutions and only new technologies can solve that. For example, agricultural extension has suffered over the years, and the ratio of extension officers to farmers is just too wide.
How do you expect an extension agent to attend to 3 000 farmers with little or no resources to work with? Only ICT can proffer solution. Information dissemination is key to agricultural development anywhere and the extension agents are responsible for this.
Access to market is another key area that tech can fill. Farmers find it difficult to transport their farm produce to the nearest market; they are left at the mercy of middlemen that rip them off their toil.
Tech can be helpful in this regard and reduce the acts of middlemen in agribusiness transactions. Farmers will know when, how and where to sell whatever they cultivate when new technologies are involved.
VB: How has tech in agriculture evolved in Nigeria?
OAO: It’s been very slow over the years, but thanks to the advent of mobile technologies. The rate at which smallholder farmers embrace technology now is really encouraging compared to five years ago and it’s gradually increasing.
A higher percentage of farmers in Nigeria own a mobile phone, it wasn’t like that four or five years ago and even a growing percentage now uses the internet for their transactions. They own smartphones and they use mobile messaging apps.
VB: Let’s be more specific about current tech application in agriculture in Nigeria.
OAO: The past administration in Nigeria became popular with a lot of programmes that revolves around agricultural transformation — from using the e-wallet system to distribute fertilisers and the growth enhancement programme. But the effect was short-lived because of a lot of factors. This suggests that tech — in this context — have not been so effective in Nigeria.
VB: So why are there so few successful agricultural tech startups yet in Nigeria?
OAO: I just believe the major leagues that control and operate the startup scene don’t understand the sector yet. Agriculture (agribusiness) is a very unique industry that needs unique solutions for startups to operate effectively.
The models that work for other sectors won’t work for agriculture.
There is a need to build agro-based models and work with the major stakeholders in order to understand the space. For every challenge farmers face, there is a solution to it using new technologies — and there are a lot of issues. So the space is big but the players are few.
A model will have to bring all the stakeholders together before you can solve problems — from agro researchers, specialists and even the farmers’ community. This is where agribusiness innovation comes in — a model that will catalyse inclusive growth through acceleration of pioneering enterprises.
It will necessitate public-private partnership and active engagement of industry, financiers, government and farmers. The engagement of all ecosystem actors around a notion of shared value can increase the competitiveness of the agro-business sector.
VB: Tell me more about the Agro Innovation HUB.
OAO: Agro Innovation HUB is a platform where innovative ideas are generated and accelerated into ventures that can solve the problems in agriculture and agribusiness using new technologies. It’s a space that will bring all the necessary stakeholders together to add value to existing solutions and systems and birth new ones that will redefine agriculture in Nigeria, West Africa and ultimately the African continent.
There are so many hubs now across the country, but there is none known at the moment that focuses on solving agricultural problems. Before establishing AgroHUB, we discovered the ones in Tanzania and South Africa. We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training, Moor Plantation Ibadan, Nigeria. The institute is a world renowned agro research institute of international repute and they have the mandate in some agricultural programmes across the country.
They also control the farming systems across the south western states of Nigeria, Oyo, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun states including Edo and Delta states working with the Agricultural Development Programs (ADPs) in these states. If there had been any agribusiness innovation center prior our collaboration, you cannot escape working with them.
VB: What approaches do you think will work?
OAO: We have tried so many approaches in our company as a team from food market platforms to agro classified portals.
A major point to note is that most startups are always after raising funds for their ideas and expecting a miracle overnight which doesn’t work. Those ecommerce companies and other startups we term “successful” in Nigeria have so many stories they won’t share with the public. What we are working on is a bit similar to what Konga is doing but we have a different strategy of capturing the market and operating without all these investors’ funds and venture capitalists brouhaha.
I’m also interested in how easy it is to convince farmers to embrace ICT; can Web-based solutions work considering the poor internet access at rural areas? And of course the issue of monetising for developers of agric ICT solutions that target farmers
The agro value chain is very big and the market is big enough that we even pray for more competing products to flood the space so that we can challenge ourselves and at the end of the day add the needed value. I have access to some information and I can tell you we have more that 1.5 million farm families in Southwest Nigeria alone. If 90% of them own and use a mobile phone what else do you have to know about our wonderful agro-business as a tech developer?
Now that oil is dropping in value, the new trend of diversifying the economy has agribusiness as a major priority by the government.
Enough of building solutions for taxi hailing or another restaurant locator, farmers need an IVR solution that will connect them to the nearest help, a solution to solve the problem of rural financing, a device that will help them monitor and manage their farm business, unemployed graduates are venturing into agriculture without any prior knowledge, they need a platform that will educate them and a whole lot more that time won’t permit me to mention.
Image by Alex Proimos via Flickr