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Rural Farmers Hub: Empowering Farmers in Nigeria

Around 88% of Nigeria’s farmers (roughly 40 million) engage in agriculture mainly at a subsistence level with a majority of that population living in the rural areas. Despite its contribution to the economy, Nigeria’s agricultural sector faces many challenges such as outdated land tenure systems, low levels of irrigation farming, climate change and land degradation. Other challenges include high production costs, inefficient distribution of inputs, limited financing, high post-harvest losses and poor access to markets.

A limited adoption of monitoring technologies means farmers walk through several hectares, multiple times weekly, looking for crops that are stressed or diseased. This is not an easy thing to do and discourages a lot of young people from this vital economic activity. When such a fault is identified, the farmer relies on expert’s advice or government extension workers to show up at the village. As a result, millions of farmers are unable to access quality advice as well as the latest, authentic information on best farming practices. This leads to their inability to improve yield, manage pest attacks,  stubborn weeds, climate change, and access premium markets for their harvest.

At Rural Farmers Hub, we use innovative information technology (IT) to empower smallholder farmers to attain sustainable economic development. We help farmers to make better farming decisions via satellite remote sensing delivered via SMS, mobile app, or in-person. Our proprietary technology leverages modern scientific methodology and makes them backwards-compatible with ordinary mobile phones. Today, we have a team of 16 employees made up of agronomists, soil scientists, software engineers, designers, mobile developers and over 300 extension workers spread across the country. 

Founding the Rural Farmers Hub

“I come from a software engineering background and my co-founder is from the development space. As we were talking about some of the problems he has experienced in that space, especially market linkages, we were sharing ideas on how to solve these problems. How do we help farmers access inputs? How do we help improve farmers’ livelihoods? This was not the first time we were discussing such issues, we had started a forum in university days and this was part of a continuation of that discussion. We then decided to form a company that could solve these needs for smallholder farmers seeing that not much had changed in more than a decade, in fact, things had deteriorated. And this is when we founded Rural Farmers Hub in 2018,” Gabriel Eze, co-Founder of Rural Farmers Hub, speaking about his entrepreneurship journey. 

Rural Farmers Hub was meant to be a marketing platform connecting private sector manufacturers to farmers. Along the way, we found out something else, the bigger (and harder) challenge was not just linking these two parties but rather the fact that farmers were producing less food per unit. There was a productivity problem. In 2020 for example, the productivity for grains in Africa as a whole ranged between 1.2- 1.6 tonnes per hectare while in Asia, this number is doubled to about 3.2 tonnes per hectare. In Europe as of the same year, it was about 4.0 tonnes per hectare. 

So essentially if you double Africa’s productivity, it’s still less than that of Asia and Europe, in fact, it is less than the global average. Farmers are not producing as much food per hectare as their counterparts in other parts of the world. Therefore, we moved from a market linkage business model to a precision farming business model because the latter can boost farmers productivity and propel them towards access to finance and improved seed varieties. 

Precision farming 

Precision farming includes the targeting of these inputs, leading to optimal results e.g. When planting seeds, most farmers just broadcast the seeds (spreading the seeds across the farm). Broadcasting method is limited as it only works on farms which are already fertile. For infertile farms, these seeds will struggle for limited resources. Rather than do this randomized planting method, the farmer could switch to verbirate application whereby they can vary the spacing and seed density for different sections of the farm. For places that are very productive, they can increase the seed density and reduce the spacing. This is just but one of the more than a dozen methods of precision farming that farmers can adopt to increase their productivity. 

We have challenged our farmers to apply precision farming and so far, over the past four years, they have recorded an average 35% increase in productivity yields. A half tonne improvement from the continental average over the last two years. From 1.2 tonnes per hectare when we started out, now we are recording close to 2.5 tonnes per hectare and for some locations, close to 7 tonnes per hectare. We have worked with 25,000 farmers, mostly grain farmers growing maize, sorghum, sesame rice and soya beans. We also recently began working with tomato, pepper and groundnuts farmers. Our approach from day one has been market driven which is why we work with crops that are in demand. 

Key Learnings from GAFP 

Through the Generation Africa Fellowship Program(GAFP), I learnt a lot from Christine Owande and Haggai Leonard, financial and agribusiness experts respectively. Their experience and knowledge opened our eyes to several aspects around financial modelling, especially the fact that investors not only want to hear your impact story but also your financial story. My team also benefited from GAFP; our accountant was engaged in capacity building on financial management and record keeping. 

With Leonard on the other hand, we focused on expanding into other African countries. Despite our rapid growth over the past 4 years, everything happens within a very narrow window of three-four months and the only way we can close out the other eight months was to expand to other African markets that have overlapping seasons. He advised us to be very deliberate with our expansion plans in either parts of the continent.

Our major planting season is between May and September. At the same time, the cropping season in Central Africa begins just after Nigeria’s cropping season is ending. As that one is ending, the one in East Africa is beginning and so on. We have a spreadsheet that helps to identify when the seasons begin in which region and how to penetrate those regions as well as the crops that are grown within those windows. This was the first part of the project and we have successfully completed this. 

We have already laid the foundation and have begun the implementation phase with discussions with local partners in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burkina Faso already ongoing.  The foundational learning/ advice given by Leonard has given us the push we needed to start working on this. We hope that by the same time in 2023, we will begin receiving positive results from the new markets. 

What Next for Rural Farmers Hub?

We have already laid the foundation and have begun the implementation phase with discussions with local partners in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burkina Faso already ongoing. We are in talks  with the national body for oil palm producers in Nigeria and the national body for cocoa farmers in Nigeria along with other foreign partners as we plan to expand our service to cover other crops such as cocoa, groundnuts and oil palm trees. In 2023, we shall also delve into tree crops like palm oil and cocoa. Currently, we have several branches in 12 states of Northern Nigeria. We wish to expand to Southern Nigeria where root tubers and vegetables are predominant.

Interviewed by Odhiambo Obonyo 

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