Grow for Me onboards pre-vetted farmers on its platform and matches micro-investors to fund farming activities for a share of the proceeds. On harvest, farmers get 35% of the profit; the sponsors get 50%, and the startup takes 15%.
In a recent interview with Space in Africa, as part of an editorial series on the ten startups selected for the 2020 Africa4Future Aerospace Acceleration program, Nana Prempeh Agyeman, Co-founder and CEO at Grow for Me discussed the company’s journey and how they are using satellite imageries to scale efficiently.
Read the Q/A.
How did you come up with the idea of Grow for Me? And when did you start putting together the fantastic team you have?
I have an MPhil in Machine Systems Agric Engineering and my co-founder, my friend for ten years, has an MPhil in Agricultural Engineering. We have been in the agriculture space for a long time. After school, my now wife and I took all our savings and gave it to a supposed farmer to farm for us, but all the money went down the drain. It was a bitter experience because we wanted to farm, but someone who we gave our money failed. We realized many others had a similarly awful experience. I started thinking about how we can solve the problem. My friends Francis Monnie and Kwame Bekoe, who is also our advisor and investor, were looking at a similar problem with another friend of ours who had discussed the idea.
We decided to begin work on it and experimented with farming for a few sponsors. We raised about $4,000, and we were able to return the money of the sponsors to them. That was about 2-3 years ago. Within that time, we cycled from Accra to Nigeria on bamboo bicycles. We were on the main road, seeing the countryside and the vast potential that was untapped across the region. It was unbelievable, with all the potential in the land, we still struggle to feed our continent. We looked at the problem and realized that the lack of investment is part of the core challenge. We then built our platform, having tested it offline, to be able to raise financing from anywhere in the world, sponsor farmers and enable profit sharing. Within our first week of experimenting this, we were able to raise $10,000 and was oversubscribed.
The individual experiences and journey made it possible for us to start and execute. We are in a position now to fundraise and scale the business in two key areas: raising funds and trading. Raising funds and sponsoring farmers and then selling the products.
In terms of building the team, we were looking to build a company that would transform the lives of millions, so we had to make sure that we had the best of people on our board and the best personnel on our team. We are still bringing in some of the top brains and exceptional individuals because we want to build a global Pan-African company. Case in point, we are trading on the Ghana Commodity Exchange which is housed in the Free Continental Trade Agreements building. So for us, we are looking at being the go-to crowd farming and crowdfunding platform in Africa.
When did you officially launch the startup to the market?
Although we had been running for 2-3 years, we officially incorporated in January. In June/July, during the final period of the Africa4Future accelerator, we launched an open call for people to sponsor a farm and it was oversubscribed.
Beyond funding, how involved are you with the farmers?
We work with existing partners on the ground, such as extension officers to be able to provide extension services in the country. We use satellite images to provide more in-depth agronomy advice beyond what the extension officers can do.
What do you consider as your milestones so far?
Our major milestone was being able to rebuild our platform within six months to handle the kind of complexity we are looking at in terms of incorporating applications from satellite images to logistics. The second milestone was when we finished our integration with our payment platform so that we can raise funding from anywhere in the world. And the third and most critical milestone was when we started raising funding and saw sponsorship coming in through the platform from thousands of strangers, people who heard about it and saw it and believed in it. The fourth milestone was when we went up North and funded over 41 farmers and did all the work we had to do to see it happen. The fifth milestone was when we successfully made our first trade and got the whole cycle completed.
What is your relationship with off-takers?
We are both a trade facilitator and a trading partner for off-takers. So first of all, we raise funds to be able to finance the farmers, to farm and grow more produce. Then we sell the products on the commodity exchange or the open market to off-takers. We make money from the sales and return principal and share of profit to our sponsors.
I see you also plan to have a sort of eCommerce or marketplace platform. Can you talk a bit about that?
We plan to launch an eCommerce platform to enable farmers or commodity traders to sell online. We have built the platform and are currently testing it. We plan to put in place the operational systems in the next couple of months before launching the platform.
What do you consider your most competitive advantage considering that several agritech crowdfunding platforms have emerged in Ghana, Nigeria and rest of the West African market?
There are lots of platforms out there, but two things are lacking. One, a lot of them manage their farms which increases the complexity of the business. We don’t own a single farm. So that means we are purely a technology company. We identify farmers, vet them and sponsor those we think will bring the most of returns and output. Also, we are using satellites to monitor the farms and see how they are performing remotely. Again, the background of the people who founded Grow for Me gives us an edge. I built a FinTech company in five years that scaled into Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. With the FinTech background, which was focused on churches and businesses where fundraising is a big thing, I come on board building a platform in a field I have trained with extensive experience in raising funds. What makes the big difference is the people, the technology and the strategy; those are what set us apart. If you look carefully at the board and the calibre of people and the technology we built, you will find that our strategy is set to enable us to scale across the continent.
How does the satellite-based remote monitoring of farms work and what sort of partnership do you have with satellite data providers?
The platform is both web and mobile-based, allowing sponsors to view the farm on their portfolio and see the stages of the crops. They can monitor more details on the farms such as the land preparation and planting stages. The platform integrates all the processes from investing and signing contracts to tracking the farms and onboarding off-takers. Users can provide their bank details for payments or a mobile money wallet. It assigns contracts, contacts, updates and notifications. During the Africa4Future accelerator, we rebuilt the platform and improved on the key features and user experiences. We are leveraging satellite images from Airbus subsidiary UP42 to monitor the farms.
How would you describe the traction before and after the accelerator?
Before the Africa4Future program, we were in the Founder Institute, which helped us put the business and the strategy in place. Then from April to June, we focused on the technology and product as part of the Africa4Future program at CCHub, which is heavily focused on product and technology development. During this period, we improved the technology to a different level and have since June/July focused on operationalizing the business. I would say that the accelerator program came at the right time in helping us to build the technology and operationalizing the business. The kind of resources that we were given access to was tremendous. For example, we were wondering where we are going to get satellite images and how we are going to make connections with development leaders such as GIZ and so on; all these were made possible, thanks to the Africa4Future program. The program has been tremendously amazing, and I am excited I was a part of it.
Do you foresee further intersection in satellite technology and the future of Grow for Me?
Yes. We expect to see more engagement with satellite technology in a couple of areas. First of all, to remotely monitor a farm with a day or two-day-old satellite image, which we have already done so that sponsors know what is happening, is such a powerful tool. The next thing is being able to look up past performance so that sponsors can predict output and choose a farm based on the insight. Using the algorithms on UP42, we shall be able to simplify specific critical data such as soil moisture to determine the health of the crops. These kinds of insights will help us to proactively advise the farmers leveraging companies like Rural Farmers Hub as well as our technology to see what is happening.
Going forward, we shall be using artificial intelligence to practically tell what kind of disease may be infecting a crop so that farmers can proactively act on it. Although that is more on the agronomy side, I think people have built technologies around that, and we can quickly adapt those into our platform. In terms of logistics, we would not be handling logistics ourselves. We shall focus on managing the critical things ourselves. We shall be monitoring our monitors, the people who go on the field to make sure that the farms are doing well, and monitoring the trucks when they deliver products from one point to the other; so that there is a form of an independent eye that follows what is going on. The satellite images are going to be used purely for agronomy and logistics activities. We shall be partnering with companies that have done these things well and do not have to reinvent the solutions that already exist except where we may have a more competitive advantage.