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Coffee beans, potatoes and opportunity

Drones, sensors, solar panels, smartphones … farming is becoming an exciting sector for the young and enterprising.
The agricultural giants of tomorrow can plant a seed today and keep it on their window sill … by 2030 the sector will represent a $1trn opportunity. Picture: Shutterstock

From your morning coffee to the packet of chips you might find yourself munching on later in the afternoon, everything you consume today will have started in a field.

Telecoms giant Econet and Norway-based agricultural products firm Yara International have launched an initiative aimed at kick-starting young entrepreneurs in the agri-food space.

Generation Africa was launched on Thursday, together with the announcement of its 2019 GoGettaz entrepreneurship competition aimed at young entrepreneurs seeking to enter the agri-food industry. Prize money of $100 000 will be awarded to two business ventures. The partnership will support a cohort of 12 young agri-food entrepreneurs in scaling up their ventures.

A study by Generation Africa shows that Africa’s agricultural food sector has the potential to offer an estimated $1 trillion opportunity to young entrepreneurs by the year 2030.

Econet group chair Strive Masiyiwa says food is big business and market demand is only going to grow in the decades to come. He says a technology revolution could open new doors and help people in the ways they grow, transport and package food, adding that tools like mobile phones, sensors, drones, solar panels, renewable energy and so on could reshape and make the sector more exciting.

The study also mentions that Africa’s annual food import bill, currently estimated at $35 billion, is projected to reach $110 billion by 2025. At that rate, it will weaken African economies, reduce their export values, and put jobs at risk.

Job creation

One of Africa’s biggest challenges is job creation, and according to Econet’s group chief of staff, Dalumuzi Mhlanga, agri-food and manufacturing are the sectors most likely to increase job absorption.

South Africa’s agricultural sector is leaking jobs. According to Statistics SA’s first quarter labour force survey, the number of jobs in agriculture fell by 12 000 compared to the fourth quarter of 2018.

The collective sentiment at the launch of Generation Africa is that Africa is positioned favourably as far as agriculture is concerned. “Agriculture is already a large business in Africa,” says Yara president and CEO Svein Tore Holsether, “but how do we deal with growing a business, feeding a growing population and looking after the climate?”

He says we need to leapfrog into technology in order to grow food more sustainably.

The journey into agripreneurship

The study shows that accessing finance is challenging for agri-food businesses, particularly for the ‘missing middle’ – those too big for microfinance and too small for traditional bank loans.

“Yet financing such [agri-food] enterprises can make the difference between a business that sustains one family and a venture that disrupts an industry, creating jobs and economic opportunity,” the study says.  

Ada Osakwe, founder and CEO of Agrolay Ventures, an investment firm with interests in the agri-food sector, says she often hears of young potential entrepreneurs seeking to enter the agri-food sector being hindered by a lack of financing and resources.

She says banks are often not the first route of endeavour for funding, especially for start-ups, because they are generally listed and have to account to shareholders. The next best thing for start-ups is to turn to their savings, or family or friends who believe in their vision and are willing to invest in their ideas and provide capital for their agripreneurship journey.

Osakwe warned that Africa could easily become irrelevant if it does not incorporate fresh and innovative ideas into its agri-businesses.

“The world is learning to farm without land, they are learning to make plant-based proteins, they don’t need cows anymore – the world is moving ahead and we could easily become irrelevant if we don’t keep up with the times of technology,” she says.

The premise of Generation Africa is to inspire young agripreneurs to use their technological skill set to innovate, revolutionise and create an agri-industry that will grow sustainably for the many, many years to come.

Start small … and grow, grow, grow

Legae La Banareng Farms MD Thato Moagi is a young farmer who kicked off her journey as an agripreneur in her early 20s. Now the owner of two farming operations that she is growing from skill to scale, she finds that the biggest challenge facing the industry is accessibility to technology, resources and information.

She says one of the biggest misconceptions about farming is that it requires a lot of equipment and vast lands: the biggest need is, in fact, innovation. Tapping into creative spaces and finding ideas that are cost-effective, efficient and fresh can bring changes to the industry.

She says farming doesn’t need to be done on a big piece of land – it can start in your backyard, in your home or just by planting a seed and keeping it on your window sill.

“To be a farmer, just start somewhere,” she says.

“We need to see the responsibility of feeding our people and understand our responsibility to our nation,” she adds.

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