Smart AgrIoT is an Agritech company focussed on the digitization of smallholder farmlands in Africa. The South African-based start-up recently came second place in the concluded African Space Tech Challenge, winning SecureWatch Premium, 2GB valid for three months to the value of $5,000.
Space in Africa had a chat with Jabulani Madlala, the chief operations officer. He shared a few insights into the company’s milestones and ambitions.
In a nutshell, when was the company established, and what does Smart AgrIoT do?
We were established in 2019. The company was founded based on the problems that we have in Africa Agriculture. Basically, what we do is create smart farms, more so for small farmers. The first step for farmers to be included is to digitize their farms. Then any technology can be applied to manage their farms either remotely or through other ways. Unfortunately, our continent’s problem is that the technology is too expensive for the 50 million smallholder farmers. So when we created SmartAgrIoT, we had the objective not just to digitize but manage the farms. In most cases, our farmers’ biggest asset is land. They lack access to buyers, locally and internationally. Buyers bring additional challenges to these farmers by laying out minimum specifications for various crops. For example, a buyer might say they need potatoes or vegetables grown at a certain soil moisture level. All a farmer knows is that they put the seeds on the farm, and in a certain amount of time, there should be a harvest. As a result, small farmers never become commercial. To move them from point A to B, we provide the technology, bringing in agronomists, veterinary services, and all they have to do is subscribe to the service on a PAYGO basis, usually, abut USD 30 – 40 a month.
Your farming-as-a-service platform provides design, capture fields, and analyze the soil, select crops and plan yields in addition to monitoring temperature, weather, humidity, and diseases. What technologies do you use?
We mainly space technology to view and monitor farms from any location. These include livestock, aquaculture, and crops. We use three small satellites. We are in a relationship with a European-based upstream provider where we use some of their satellites. We hope that as we go forward, there will be African satellites dedicated to agriculture. One satellite focusses on data collections, crops, land (soil, moisture), the other satellite focusses on livestock and will include information on animal health and growth. The other satellite focuses on marine life and informs on the location of the aquaculture and the volume. We have partnered with other technology providers to enable enterprise resource planning management.
How do you select farmers?
We have done a real pilot selection of nine farmer groups. Our most recent engagement is an 80 acre which we will be managing for a farmers’ group.
What is the current market traction?
The traction is improving. What we have done since 2019 and over 2020 is work on creating relationships. We have been talking to farmers’ associations, agro-processors who would ideally purchase the produce, process, package, and sell it to the market. We have a relationship with a few of them. We currently have 10 farmers’ groups. We were affected by the pandemic. This year, we are hoping to onboard about 500 farmers, 20,000 within three years, and 100,000 within five years.
Tell me how you deploy your extension officers is it on a per farm basis?
To get the best people on the team, we hire extension officers who have worked for the government. They may be resigned and still looking for a new job. The only condition we apply is that they must be from the local area because we do not want extension officers staying in hotels. They don’t have to have BSc qualifications as we have agronomists. However, they have to be good in conducting the field work, looking at the farm conditions and taking photos that can be uploaded to our systems and analyzed. They also need to have relationships with the farm owners. We deploy field officers per 15 farms, which is far better than the national average of 1 extension officer per 400 farms.
You have a financing program for farmers, your website mentions low-interest loan products, and crop insurance. Have you been able to provide this?
For this product, we are going to be partnering with two main insurance firms in Cape Town. We see the companies coming onboard to cater to this need, where associated risk is analyzed and quantified through satellite imagery analysis.
Njeri graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Finance, from the University of Nairobi and is a CFA Level II Candidate. Currently an analyst at Space in Africa, her experience spans across Project Finance, and the analysis of Venture Capital & Private Equity Ecosystems in sub-Sahara Africa, with a particular interest in Sustainable Sciences.