The digitalization of African agriculture is in its early days. But companies like Farmerline believe it’s the key to improving and advancing a sector that supports a majority of livelihoods on the continent.
Farmerline, an agribusiness marketplace founded by Allosyius Attah and Emmanuel Addai in 2013, uses a combination of software, market linkages, and financing to streamline Ghana’s fragmented agrifood supply chain and ensure that the country’s smallholder farmers have the tools they need to grow.
It started out working with 400 farmers in its home market of Ghana. Their digital marketplace now supports more than 75,000 farmers. Farmerline also has partnerships with more than 3,000 buyers, agribusinesses, food manufacturers, governments, and non-governmental organizations that have collectively supported more than one million farmers in 26 countries.
The founders, who have been bootstrapping the business for nine years, just closed their first round of institutional capital: a $6.5 million pre-series A round backed by Acumen Resilient Agriculture Fund (ARAF) and Dutch development bank FMO [disclosure: FMO sponsors AFN through its network partnership with our parent company, AgFunder.]
Farmerline has also raised $6.4 million in debt from DEG, Rabobank, Ceniarth, Rippleworks, Mulago Foundation, Whole Planet Foundation, Netri Foundation and Kiva.
“We’ve built this for nine years internally, and now we want people with expertise in building live supply chains and scaling tech companies and finance,” Attah, Farmerline’s CEO, tells AFN. “These are not things that you can pay for.”
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Many of the recent funding rounds in Africa’s agrifoodtech ecosystem have backed agribusiness marketplaces like Farmerline. Last month, Kenya-based Apollo Agriculture and Nigeria-based ThirveAgric raised $100 million between them for their online platforms that connect famers to inputs, financing, and markets.
In a sector dominated by smallholder farming, poor infrastructure, limited financial services, and weak market linkages, many companies are taking a “whole ecosystem” approach out of necessity. Addressing all pain points is, for now, the only way to build a scalable business, according to Maurice Scheepens, senior investment officer, FMO.
“Most of the marketplaces focus either on one specific crop or input, or one side of the supply chain,” Scheepens tells AFN. “You don’t see many marketplaces that take a holistic view by giving farmers a one-stop-shop experience.”
This is where Farmerline differs, he suggests. Its starting point is providing farmers with access to inputs and financing; its touchpoint for onboarding these farmers is a robust network of local, on-the-ground agents. The company offers up-front credit for farmers to buy inputs, which they can repay during and after the growing season – a “comprehensive” offering, Scheepens says.
Next, its software gives smallholder farmers access to essential information like daily weather forecasts and field guidance through a direct voice messaging system. Farmers can call in and get a local-language response to issues or concerns they’re having. The service also operates offline, which is “ideal for areas with low connectivity,” the company claims.
Once farmers’ harvest, Farmerline buys their products and manages the sales process. Its marketplace is powered by supply-chain software connecting the various buyers, dealers, and agribusinesses, as well as trucks, warehouses, and other resources to physically move goods.
“The name of the game is trust and infrastructure,” says Attah. “We had to build infrastructure to drive partnership attention to agriculture. Our trust network has helped us to build both the physical and virtual infrastructure we need to support farmers.”
Power in data
On the back end, Farmerline collects farm and farmer-level data to offer crop yield prediction, fertilizer demand forecasting, and product traceability. This underpins its bigger software offering corporate, government, and institutional agriculture players. Its AI-powered platform, called Mergdata, is licensed by global food traders and manufacturers to support their own decision-making and build customized tools for farmers in their network.
“They have a technology backbone that is tried-and-tested with larger international supply chain managers, which really gives them an edge,” says Scheepens. It also provides a steady revenue stream for Farmerline on top of its farmer-centric services.
With its first round of investment capital, Farmerline will focus on building out its logistics and supply chain services and expanding into Côte d’Ivoire.
“The challenge of agricultural market access is beyond supply and demand, because the logistics to move food in large quantities while maintaining quality is difficult,” says Attah. “Very few startups are able to play in that space.”