Ghanaian company provides digital solutions to support local agriculture: “A business run by farmers, for farmers”
By providing digital, data-driven mobile solutions, Ghanaian company Farmerline aims to improve the situation of thousands of farmers in rural areas in Africa – so far it has helped more than 200,000 of them in thirteen countries. In this way the company is supporting more efficient food production, which is needed to cope with the continent’s rising population. Founder Alloysius Attah: ‘We want make sure all the added value from their agricultural work benefits African farmers, by helping them to run their farms as businesses.’
More than 95 percent of food produced domestically in Ghana comes from small farmers. This makes agriculture the country’s largest source of income, accounting for about 20 percent of GDP and 45 percent of jobs. Nevertheless, the sector is characterised by low productivity with traditional farming techniques, a low level of mechanisation and limited irrigation.
In the north of the country, the region adjoining the Sahel, farming is becoming increasingly difficult due to climate change, with patterns of rainfall becoming more and more irregular. Elsewhere in the country, soil degradation and erosion are gradually causing desertification. Although Ghana was one of the very first African countries to succeed in halving poverty – one of the millennium goals – a quarter of Ghanaians still live below the poverty line. According to a report from humanitarian organisation the World Food Programme, more than a million Ghanaians are estimated to be struggling with food insecurity.
‘I felt that was a problem’ says Alloysius Attah, co-founder and CEO of Farmerline. ‘Small-scale farming plays an important part in our food supply. With the rising population, this sector needs to be able to contribute towards global food security, not only today, but in the future too.”
Farmerline, a company founded in 2013 by Alloysius Attah and Emmanuel O. Addai, connects small farmers throughout Africa with market information, local weather forecasts, farming tips and larger organisations, through its Mergdata software.
Attah found inspiration for the company from his own life: ‘In the past, when I was studying agriculture and later also IT, I spent a lot of time in my family’s field at the weekends. We grew most of our own food, and farming was a way of life for many families in our community. During that period I saw the challenges that existed in agriculture. I saw that we were approaching things inefficiently due to limited access to information, financing, external markets and high-quality inputs in the area of crop protection.’
‘On the other hand, the use of mobile telephony had penetrated almost everywhere in Ghana. Mobile telephone use and mobile money were on the increase. We saw opportunities there and made use of the growth in mobile telecommunications solutions to improve farming,’ says Attah. According to a GSMA, a research agency for mobile operators throughout the world, almost half the population have a mobile-based internet connection in Ghana, the second highest figure for an African country.
“Small-scale farming plays an important part in our food supply. With the rising population, this sector needs to be able to contribute towards global food security, not only today, but in the future too.”
Farmerline collects data from financial institutions, governments, weather stations and development organisations. The information is processed in Mergdata, the technology behind our business,’ says Worlai Senyo, partnerships consultant at Farmerline. ‘The information is then communicated to the farmers in a way that is tailored to their individual needs. The aim is to allow farmers to make well-considered, market-oriented decisions that will allow them to improve their yields and increase their profits.’
Farmerline uses voice messages recorded in local languages to inform farmers and keep them up to date with important information such as weather forecasts. The platform generates automated telephone calls, with content that is tailored to the specific user. ‘The farmers pick up their phone and listen to personalised information. That direct access means that you can respond to events very quickly.’
Nevertheless, this is not easy in a country where more than 80 languages are spoken. The language barrier is a real problem. In remote areas, not everyone speaks English, the official national language. This can be a challenge for the bigger companies that work with the farmers’ crops. Farmerline is therefore extending the range of local languages that it offers on the platform. The service is now available in Twi, a dialect that is widely spoken. ‘Our aim is to make the platform accessible to everyone on the continent at all times. However, internet connections are not always available in some farming communities. We therefore use mobile voice and text messages, which can be used more widely than internet services.’
This low-threshold approach is linked to some high-tech features: ‘we use artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology to get the right information to the right farmer at the right time,’ says Worlali. ‘The Belgian government is partnering with us in a project that is starting this year, focusing on small-scale growing of cocoa, vegetables, rice and maize. The project supports direct communication between companies and farmers in Ghana. Blockchain technology enables the parties to provide loans and other financial services, and we use AI for a smart learning programme for the farmers.’
The Mergdata software also offers a marketplace function, allowing farmers to buy virtually everything they need for their work: fertiliser, seeds, pesticides and water pumps. ‘We distribute a number of products to improve farmers’ health, such as face masks along with the pesticides that we sell,’ says Attah. ‘Access to high-quality products is also a problem in developing countries. Around 30% of the fertilisers and seeds in circulation are fake products or poor quality products,’ says Attah. ‘If we consistently bring high-quality products to the market and make them more accessible, there will no longer be as much room for fake products.’
About 60 percent of the African population is under 24 years old, but according to the FAO the average age of farmers is 60 years. Young people are increasingly tending to go into non-agricultural work, making the future less secure for farming. ‘Farmerline is focusing on young people to bring about the necessary growth in the agricultural sector. We are hoping to stimulate young people’s sense of innovation and entrepreneurship so that their ideas and skills can be used in agriculture. The Farmerline team itself includes young people from both agrarian and non-agrarian backgrounds. We bring these different backgrounds and perspectives together to create solutions for the sector,’ says Attah.
Local benefits from added value
‘Our services enhance productivity, which also increases the farmers’ income. That means our business model is able to create jobs for people in rural areas and also for city dwellers,’ says Attah. He argues that the decision to focus on rural areas in Africa makes economic sense: ‘before people buy a house, smartphone or internet connection, their basic need for food must be met. Food must come first, the rest comes later. There are going to be many more mouths to feed. In developing countries the agricultural sector offers many opportunities for companies to create added value and generate profits. We want to create this value locally in the best way possible, so that the profits have positive ripple effects throughout the value chain,’ says Alloysius Attah, CEO and co-founder of the software company.
It seems to be working. Farmerline is now active in thirteen African countries, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria and Malawi. The Farmerline team now consists of 50 employees and over 200 field agents, who are all locally trained Africans.
‘We want Farmerline to be an African business for the long term. Maybe 200 years, or even 500 years would be nice,’ laughs Attah. ‘Our aim is to be a company of African farmers and other talented Africans, working for farmers throughout the world.’
This article mainly explains the technological aspect of the project. In addition, Farmerline sells inputs (quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) for a productive harvest through their distribution network