This Startup Wants To Connect All African Farms To Internet

This Startup Wants To Connect All African Farms To Internet

As most African countries work on the diversification of their economies, agriculture is going to be one of the core pillars of that economic redesign. Agriculture employs more than 60% of Africa’s working population and generates a huge component of the gross domestic product (GDP). The path to Africa’s wellbeing will run through improved agricultural processes.  The sector is the low hanging fruit, to improve Africa’s economy, and everyone knows that.

To make that work, we need new technologies in farms to drive new processes that will improve productivity and farm yields. If Africa improves its farm yields, the possibility of reducing mass poverty will be certain. Across human history, when productivity improves, human welfare always accelerates. This implies that African farming systems must be redesigned to move them from largely subsistence model into a scalable architecture that delivers value at scale. In others words, the inventive processes must be engineered to become innovative ecosystems that bring massive commercialization, turning rural villages and communities into center of commerce. Farmers then transmute from being just farmers into business-people, focusing on profits and generating value, over just experiencing ancestral cultural ways of living.

The Future Farming

The future of African agriculture must be technology enabled. Here are areas technology can help:

  • Soil Mapping: African farmers need soil data to make better decisions on what to plant and how to grow crops. The soil data will be used to support building growth model for crops for each area as well as managing fertilizer mix, for each region. This means we want farmers to focus on crops where they will earn more, over just following cultural traditions handed by ancestors
  • eFarm Diary: farmers need to use electronic farm diary in real-time. This diary will keep all records – financial, staff, tools, etc in one secured place.
  • Pricing Information  – empowers rural farmers with real-time produce prices across major cities. This will provide farmers with data to effectively negotiate prices with merchants who normally pay them little, owing to lack of pricing information
  • Capital – helps farmers raise capital (loan or equity) by providing independent farm data from precision sensors to help banks and investors evaluate overall profitability of farms.
  • Crowdfund –  helps farmers crowdfund capital from local donors who they can deliver produce after harvest.
  • Insurance –  helps farmers insure their farms by providing independent farm data from precision sensors to insurers. This will help insurance companies to model risks based on actual farm data.
  • Marketplace – provides a platform for farmers to sell their produce. This will be an avenue for farmers to expand  their markets by removing geographic limitations. Farmers list their harvest days and buyers connect.
  • Precision farming: Farmers do not need to make sacrifices to gods for bumper harvest. They cannot do farming blindly. Now is the moment for technology to provide insights in what they do. They need sensory data from farms to help provide insights on what, how and when to farm

There are many players across Africa working in the agtech ecosystem noted above; some Nigerian players are also here.

The Connectivity Challenge

One of the biggest challenges that continue to affect the deployment of technology in Africa’s agriculture is connectivity. For all the modern technologies to work, farmers must have access to the web or be connected. Yes, they have to be connected. I had noted that telcos across Africa have opportunities in this area.

With AgTech IoT (Internet of Things) innovation, companies like MTN, Airtel, 9Mobile and Glo can pipe a lot of agriculture data to farmers, banks, insurers and others, across the food chain. The telcos will aim to improve the connectivity of sensors and other data-capturing devices on farms to help farmers turn data into actionable insights through software platform. The opportunity is huge as this is an untapped market. I am hoping that telcos can come together to seed a new layer of African farming through connectivity. An initiative to connect African farms would be a necessary investment for them to expand beyond where they are today.

The telecom companies will help agtech entrepreneurs handle connectivity issues with a standard, if necessary, set for the agriculture space. This is good business because the new business will help boost demand for data. We suggest for the telcos to work together and build a new business segment. Bringing networks, and platforms from agtech startups together, will quickly help drive the ag-innovation process.

In addition to providing farmers with the ability to track everything that’s happening in their fields, such as water pipe leak, irrigation, efficient fertilizer application,  the telecom firms working with agtech entrepreneurs will aim to provide farmers with prescriptive recommendations, based on the combination of historical, geospatial and on-farm data. The key is partnership with the startups working in the agriculture technology space, who will need ways to move their data to farmers. Farmers pay data subscriptions and telcos enjoy.

Unfortunately, the telcos do not seem to be highly interested in this space.

The HITCH Innovation

HITCH makes technology which helps people consume online content for free or largely free. It is a cloud platform that enables curation and access to videos via a HITCH-designed (smart) WiFi hotspot that caches content, and lets users access it offline. It is working to execute the following as noted in referred site:

  • Nurture and sustain economic opportunity, gender equality and empowerment, & social standing, using videos.
  • Achieve significant savings from a multi-sided platform of customers and users, as well as other technological innovations, as the core of its model.
  • Are owned/managed by local community operators, with whom it shares revenue from customers.
  • Offering also includes: market-based information, freemium entertainment (from Nollywood, etc.), & off-grid energy access(recharging service for phones, LED appliances, etc.).
  • Enables users improve capacity, output, & market opportunities, increasing incomes, and self-determination.

HITCH has an African vision and already operating in Nigeria.  What they do is developing a technology that “removes the barriers posed by availability, affordability, and accessibility of broadband, to the reliable, cost-effective, and seamless creation and consumption of video, in underserved communities around the world”. They innovate at the elements to make enjoying online contents to be more affordable.

By “free”, we mean that we are focused on leveraging technologies, processes, and use-cases that enable on-demand user-driven “video buffet” content delivery to them. This video buffet encompasses a sustainable value offering?—?ranging from free, to a fraction of current costs, especially as is relative to average monthly incomes, irrespective of their underserved status or location.

HITCH has a vision and it touches many pieces of connectivity in Africa. It wants to empower underserved users in emerging markets through unrestricted access to impactful videos that transcend literacy barriers. It has also made its technology easy to use: “Local community operators just turn on HITCH smart WiFi hotspot and service is automatically enabled. The users access free service by connecting to open SSID at HITCH smart WiFi hotspots; after which their devices automatically redirect to landing page (no further input required)”.

What HITCH has developed can be used in other sectors like video-on-demand markets, education and more. It goes beyond agriculture. They are already working with partners like Empower in East Africa to make access to online contents possible.

Empower from HITCH (source: HITCH)

The Promise of HITCH In Nigeria

With this technology ease of us, it is very possible that farmers cooperatives can organize and connect in the HITCH ecosystem. The company clearly understands the enormous opportunities of reaching rural communities, beyond cities, where the telcos focus, as noted in its homepage.

Globally, over 4 billion people don’t have sustainable (available, affordable, & accessible) broadband. Most of these users are un/underserved by existing coverage and service infrastructure; and live in rural and urban emerging markets. Thus, are denied the ability to benefit from real technology-driven economic growth.

Broadband is important because low digital and conventional literacy in these markets, means video (especially in local languages/dialects) presents an enhanced medium for information, knowledge, and power. For these users, the prevalent notion of “trickle-down broadband” is a death knell; as ROI of current options struggles to present a reliable pathway to sustainable broadband delivery.

HITCH system (source: HITCH)

All Together

HITCH offers great value for people with limited access to the web. It is not the only company working in this space. Flobyt, Cafe Neo and Surfwella are other entities which are providing free or affordable internet in Nigeria. But HITCH takes this business model forward with its inclusion of rural community like farming areas. It will have to deal with many challenges (power, density, purchasing power, etc) typical in serving rural regions across Africa. How it solves those problems will determine its sustainability and potential profitability.

My company Zenvus will surely benefit from this initiative because a  limiting factor in our work is connectivity in farming communities. We have solved some of the problems through satellite connectivity. But that has its cost element which makes it limiting to some clients.

HITCH is very exciting and a startup to watch in Nigeria, and beyond, over the next few years. If they succeed, we will be certain that poverty will drop because farmers will surely improve yields and earn more.

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