Smallholder farmers are the backbone of agriculture in Africa. A perennial challenge facing this group that accounts for over 70% of the food supply in Africa is the lack of access to markets for their wares. The existence of middlemen in most food markets also means that farmers do not get fair prices for their produce.
This was the realization that Oumar Barou Togola had as he sought ways to give back to his home country, Mali. He wanted to start a project that empowered and subsequently increased incomes for the project’s benefactors- female smallholder farmers. Thus the journey of Farafena began, which later pivoted toHello Savanna.
The startup was founded with the aim of connecting female smallholders to markets. The startup works to supply produce sourced from Mali to other areas in the country, eventually venturing into other African markets. Farmers are onboarded to Hello Savanna’s platform through its local agent network, regardless of their farm size. They are also trained on regenerative farming practices such as crop rotation to boost soil health and reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers.
In a conversation with AFN, Oumar Barou Togola (OT) shares how he ventured into agtech and his plans with Hello Savanna.
AFN: What is the story behind starting Hello Savanna?
OT: I went to Canada for high school because my parents wanted me to experience different cultures. My plan was to later go to Europe to pursue an MBA or go to law school but my plans changed. I wanted to do something that I was passionate about. So you do what your heart tells you.
That’s when I reached out to my parents, who had always been involved in community development, to see what I could do to give back to the continent.
They had farmland in Mali that I could do something with despite having not studied agriculture. We knew venturing into agriculture was something that could really benefit the country. I started my research and found there was demand for some types of Malian produce like moringa and fonio in Canada.
The first thing that I wanted to do however was to speak with the female farmers.
I understood our culture and I understood that women didn’t get to make a lot of decisions when it came to farmland. My goal was to provide women with the appropriate tools for them to be able to provide for the next generation. In the beginning, I spoke to a group of around 10 women and explained exactly what we wanted to do. We consulted with them, asked them what they liked and wanted to do and were able to do at that time.
A lot of them loved farming. They had products but had no market for them. There was also a big disconnect between the farmers and the consumer because the people in the middle make most of the money. We therefore created a market for them in Canada.
For the last seven years, we’ve been able to work with around 1000 female farmers. We want to give voices to these women and the world to know who they are. We therefore put their faces on the packaging. To create transparency in purchasing, we implemented blockchain technology four years ago.
AFN: What is your plan with regards to supplying Canada?
OT: In 2020 I travelled to Mali, having grown Farafena for seven years. After this trip however, we [Hello Savanna] wanted to take an alternative route.
With Covid-19 spreading, lockdowns were sure to greatly affect African smallholder farmers. On top of all this, we were bringing products thousands of miles away from Mali to Canada, to a market that does not necessarily need the produce. The produce was an option in Canada, yet there were millions of people suffering from malnutrition and famine in Mali and across the continent. How could we justify bringing all these highly nutritious foods out of the country and sell them abroad when they were needed on the continent?
We decided to pivot from an export model to supplying within the continent for African smallholder farmers to feed their respective cities and shorten our food supply chain. That is why we decided to create Hello Savanna. We’ll stop exporting to Canada in August this year.
Prior to the pivot, which is being finalized this year, Hello Savanna had exported around 200 tons of produce to Canada, the US and the UK. With the Savanna project and the distribution of produce within Mali, we will be doing that volume within less than 12 months.
AFN: What has your fundraising journey been like?
OT: We’ve had issues securing funding. We’re starting a new project which will focus on socioeconomic issues and most of the responses we’ve received is that we’re too ambitious. We’ve however been able to bootstrap for close to a decade in this period. We also understand how agriculture works in Africa and how the market responds.
We’re out to raise $2 million which will go into farming projects, logistics infrastructure, an off-grid processing facility and our socioeconomic development project.
We’ve been speaking with different major funding agencies for the socioeconomic development project which will address issues like gender inequality, youth unemployment, health among other issues.
AFN: Apart from raising funding, what other challenges have you faced?
OT: Mindset. It’s hard for some employees to understand that they are part of the business and are the hardest soul of the business versus looking at it as a work. It’s been hard because sometimes their upbringing was with so little, that they just want to benefit from the system.
At the same time once people see you on the ground doing the work exactly as they will be doing, they get to trust you. I feel like that trust factor is very important.
AFN: What does Hello Savanna have in store for the future?
OT: We are focusing on Mali for now and onwards our plan is to implement our project in cities across the continent. Africa is the youngest continent by far and by 2050, every fourth child will be born in Africa according to Unicef. We shouldn’t be waiting to 2050 to start mitigating the risk for a food crisis. Our goal is to understand how to make farmers more efficient and introduce technology to make these farmers more productive.
We also want to see like-minded individuals and organizations join us in addressing these issues that are important to the continent. We need people to join us in mitigating all these issues because they are real. The food shortage is a global thing. We are seeing this in Canada, but I think this is going to be even more apparent in Africa where a lot of countries rely on imports.
AFN: Any final takes?
OT: There’s a huge disconnect between what consumers are looking for and what informed farmers are able to do. Our goal right now is to solve this issue and also bring back the younger generation to take up agriculture.
As a young African, nobody will come and hand anything to me. I’ve got to work and do my part to make sure that this continent is better off. There are startups that already have amazing impact in agritech. We should be applauding these people and thinking about how we can push the boundaries, how we can make farming more appealing and how we can become self sufficient when it comes to food production in Africa.