How to forge an agritech revolution in a broken system

23 Sep 2016

Jamila Abass, co-founder and CEO of M-Farm, speaking at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Jamila Abass’ Inspirefest keynote explained how her company, M-Farm, is connecting rural African farmers to 21st-century information.

How do you create an efficient e-commerce system in a broken supply chain?

This is the challenge undertaken by M-Farm co-founder and CEO Jamila Abass, who describes the agricultural supply chain in Kenya as long, inefficient and very painful.

Future Human

Abass attributes these problems to the fragmented nature of the Kenyan farming community. Farmers here have small parcels of land, producing small volumes that don’t attract big buyers. The result, Abass claims, is that many receive one-third or less of the value of the crops that they are selling.

Inspirefest 2017

These smallholder farmers often don’t know the market need, or even if they will ever get to sell their produce, or for how much. Abass and her company first sought to plug this information gap.

In late 2010, she and her co-founders started out with a simple, novel idea: to bridge the information gap between farmers and buyers. They didn’t just want to get the two talking, but also to give the farmers “accurate, reliable and actionable” information.

“The key word here is ‘actionable’. Underline it. Italicise it. Bold it. Write it in big, big, big font. Because information has to be actionable for it to make sense for the farmers who are going to benefit from it,” she explained to the audience at Inspirefest this summer.

‘Information has to be actionable for it to make sense for the farmers who are going to benefit from it’

According to Abass, even the poorest Kenyan farmers can now afford a mobile phone, and that’s how M-Farm provides them with actionable insights. Leveraging the infrastructure already in place, it gives farmers prices in different markets in the country via simple SMS. Farmers can find out what buyers may need in advance and plan to grow what will fulfil the market need.

M-Farm has also connected the farmers to one another, creating a vital co-operative that enables them to combine their produce and take it to market as a collective. They can also get tips and advice from their peers and agriculture experts.

Agritech and donkeys

Establishing this network and enabling the sharing of important information was not the end of M-Farm’s challenges, though.

Abass and her team entered a new phase of their journey when they realised that getting farmers and buyers to talk to each other was step one. The next step – transporting the produce from one place to another after an order is placed – posed an entirely different challenge.

In their target marketplace, M-Farm does not have the “luxury” of partnering with a third-party logistics company such as UPS or DHL, Abass explained. Here, logistics runs on the back of donkeys.

This is where M-Farm decided to knit the infrastructure of the 19th century and the 21st century together. They have formed an ecosystem with these informal logistics players to enable the collection of produce from each and every smallholder farmer, bulking it to make it attractive for buyers who then come and take it from M-Farm’s collection centres.

“With all these challenges, M-Farm remains the No 1 agtech company in Africa with over 22,000 clients,” said Abass.

“We might not be able to solve all the problems the farmers have […] but what we have been able to do is provide a holistic solution from the time of planting to the time of selling and taking it to the market, one text at a time, one farmer at a time.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic