In March 2020 when the government first imposed a total lockdown to minimise the spread of the COVID-19, there was a panic among food growers because it was the start of a new planting season. Even though essential workers were excluded from the directive, Agric-tech entrepreneurs like Uka Eje, Co-Founder & CEO of Thrive Agric, experienced logistical nightmares among others.
In this interview with Chiemelie Ezeobi, he maintains that until smallholder farmers are well funded, Nigeria will not self-actualise
How did you get here? Give us an insight into the journey so far
I come from Benue State. Being an agrarian State a lot of farming activities happen there. While I was young, I noticed that my parents sent a lot of food to their relatives in the villages and for me that was absurd since I expected it to be the other way round. I started asking a number of questions and I noticed the reason was because farmers did not have all that they needed for farming. A lot of the rural farmers lacked best advisory support, best farming inputs and access to premium markets and this limited their output upon harvest. This situation still prevails till date among a lot of smallholder farmers.
You could have done anything else; why agriculture?
Agriculture has the potential to create immense impact on smallholder farmers and beyond these farmers, agriculture has the ability to transform multiple value chains. For instance, an increased production of paddy rice can lead to an increased entry of rice millers and rice retailers. This is one way that agriculture,by itself, has the power to open up multiple value chains and transform rural and urban communities.
One of the steps you first took was to build a supply chain for farmers in Northern Nigeria; how did that turn out? How sustainable has it turned out to be?
It turned out pretty well. The outcome of that has helped us to manage distribution of inputs to smallholder farmers in clusters. On top of this, we have also been able to build commodity distribution chains from farmers around various communities, which have enabled us to build firm relationships with food processing companies locally and internationally, therebybringing value to these farmers.
You have been able to identify three major challenges farmers face: finance, access to better inputs and low yields because of insufficient data and a lack of access to premium markets – what have you done with that knowledge?
This discovery was what made us embark on the journey as a company. We started working with smallholder farmers to give them access to finance, technology-enabled advisory and accessto premium market. So far, we have provided this service to over 50,000 farmers in Nigeria.
As the Founder and CEO of Thrive Agric, how have you bridged the funding gap since that seems to be at the core of your derivatives?
Funding is a key factor to scaling agriculture whether as individuals – like a smallholder farmer, or collectively – as a corporate entity like Thrive Agric or a whole nation. Access to credit remains fundamental to accessing premium seeds, fertilizer and other farming inputs you can think of. Farmers need to be able to concentrate on their job – farming – in order to achieve maximum yields, and not worry about storage or access to market. By funding the sector via ThriveAgric for instance, we are able to provide the farmers with not just expert advisory but also these guarantees, linking them with needed funding. These are people who otherwise aren’t included in the formal financial services hence will not qualify for loans. One key thing we have been able to do is to build a simple technology that links bank partners on-lend to smallholder farmers. We also have a platform that connects individuals to farmers for financing. We think it’s still early stage and there are so many opportunities yet to be unlocked.
Why do you target small holder farmers?
We believe that 80 per cent of food production in Nigeria is largely done by small holder farmers. As a company, we decided to expand the productivity of this 80 per cent population because in doing so we can invariably increase the agriculture potential of Nigerian and Africa. We believe that the smallholder farmer, if properly advised and properly linked with market access, would grow to large scale farmers in the coming years.
What are your high points so far?
The most exciting parts of this journey is in seeing farmers who produced one tonne in a hectare now being able to harvest four tonnes on the same hectare, which represents 4X more value and increased economic prosperity for them and their immediate community. These impacts make us see how our contribution to every individual farmer has an impact on the grand scheme.
Any challenges? How has the pandemic worsened or made the challenges easier?
One massive challenge was the difficulty in moving goods from place to place. The announcement of the initial lockdown coincided with the start of a planting season when we needed to transport inputs from the manufacturers to farmer locations. There were a number of restrictions moving these goods and what would take two days took a lot more because of road blocks and access issues. We also experienced issues with the closure of some of our primary input producers further complicating our otherwise smooth system. The sum total of these challenges limited the total number of farmers we could reach for the season.
Knowing what you know now, would you still venture down this path again?
Absolutely. Beyond profits, I find venturing into agribusiness very exciting when I consider many factors. Our involvement produces impacts that we can see; impact ranging from higher crop yields for the farmers, better standard of living and economic prosperity for the nation. It’s rewarding.
Where do you see yourself and Thrive Agric in the near future?
In the next two years, 2023 to be exact, we plan to have provided these services to over a million smallholder farmers in Nigeria and steer massive economic prosperity for them. Africa is ripe for an agricultural revolution and I see Thrive Agricleading that revolution through technology.