Agricultural technology, commonly referred to as agritech, aims at utilising technological innovation to make the food production process more efficient. Over the past decade, this field has gained a lot of attention as a growing number of startups have started using technology to improve the farming and growing process. According to the Financial Times, over $700 million invested into agritech in 2017, almost double than what was invested the year before. In 2021, according to AgFunderNews, the global agritech sector is expected to experience exponential growth to accelerate innovation in the sector even further.
One of the startups innovating in the Agritech space is AgServer, based in Nigeria, aiming to democratise the availability of information between farmers. The team has launched their platform for alpha testing with over 1,000 control users to keep co-designing the solution directly with their users. This week we caught up with their Technical Lead, Stephen Oladele, to learn more about Agserver’s journey and vision.
Enjoy the Q&A below!
The Startup at a Glance
- Startup Name: AgServer
- Industry: Agritech
- Location: Nigeria
- Date founded: Oct 2020
- Number of employees: 5
- Vonage API used: SMS API / Voice API
In One Sentence, What Does AgServer Do?
AgServer is a peer-to-peer knowledge sharing platform that enables farmers to ask questions and get answers from a network of other farmers and extension agents regardless of where they are or what mobile device they use.
What Is the Problem You Are Solving? Was This the Initial Problem or Did You Pivot?
In spite of producing about 70% of the food that Africa consumes, most smallholder farmers go to bed hungry, are poor and among the most vulnerable. In order to earn more and bolster productivity, they need to access holistic information and extension services which are in critical shortage. For instance, in Nigeria, the extension worker to farmer ratio is 1:8500! Most of these farmers also live in isolated rural areas so do not have access to the internet to source information to improve yield. The pandemic has even made this worse with infrequent physical visits for the little number of existent extension agents.
There is a lack of available and accessible data on this unique and diverse group. This makes it hard to empirically develop and deploy interventions that will make the most impact on the smallholder farmers.
What Differentiates AgServer From Your Competitors? Is There a Secret Sauce?
First is to note that with the extension worker to farmer ratio at 1:8500, adequate extension service is greatly lacking in Nigeria and across Africa at large. Beyond government, there are a few other private sector extension providers but services require in-person physical farm visits.
For our uniqueness, most interventions assume that farmers don’t have expert knowledge whereas farmers create unique innovations/are custodians of traditional knowledge. Some resort to only using farmer knowledge. But we utilize both peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and expert views plus have a bank of preloaded answers that farmers frequently ask hence a more robust response system. Deploying external expert knowledge helps for instance in the advent of a new pest/disease(i.e fall armyworm) which farmers may not have experienced. So we use both bottom-up/top-down approaches--online and offline (SMS/voice) products for smallholder farmers thereby aptly capturing the changing demography of farmers.
We are the only platform curating other offline/online beneficial opportunities for farmers i.e. funding, training, and so on. Most services leave farmers at subsistence. We provide agri-business education to increase commercial production beyond smallholding thereby creating better chances of escaping poverty.
VC, Angel, Bootstrap or Other?
We are currently bootstrapping and sustained via grants but are still looking for VC, angel funding, and any other source of funding that may be available.
What’s the Biggest Challenge You Faced and How Did You Overcome It?
It was figuring out the technologies to use to achieve our objectives. We overcame this by assembling a capable technical team.
The Biggest Mistake AgServer Has Made so Far and What Did You Learn From It?
We made two hires who didn’t fit and had to let them go. We are now a bit more careful with how we bring people on board as well as putting human resource processes in place to further counter this mistake.
You Can Choose One To Be on Your Board: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Who Do You Choose and Why?
He is a visionary who is not just concerned with wealth creation but at the same time solving some of humanity’s greatest challenges sustainably.
The problem that we are attempting to solve is systemic and affects 25% of the world’s population; this sure sounds like what Elon would take on, as he already does.
What Progress Have You Made Since Launching?
We have launched our online platform for alpha testing and are currently deploying it to 1,000 control users so as to keep co-designing the solution with farmers. We have also gotten advisors with immense experience in our service offering on how to team.
What’s Next For AgServer? Where Do You Want To Be in 3 Years?
We are working to fully build out our SMS/USSD/Voice offering which will cater to smallholder farmers that are offline. We also hope to expand the functionalities of our online platform including building an app to serve the farmers with internet access.
In the next 3 years, our goal is to become the premium digital agricultural extension services provider in West and Central Africa.
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