The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 was devastating to many sectors, but for a fledging agritech enterprise in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the pandemic opened up a window of opportunity.
AgriKool, a youth-led startup established three years ago, connects farmers with the market. It secured its first contract with a retail supermarket in Pietermaritzburg at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s founder and CEO Zamokuhle Thwala established it in 2019 after he quit working as a farmer, and his vision was to use it to solve the challenges he encountered in the industry.
The enterprise is an e-marketplace for fresh produce growers around Pietermaritzburg and outlying areas, sourcing a range of vegetables from emerging farmers to sell to informal and formal traders.
A Boxer supermarket in Pietermaritzburg was AgriKool’s first big retail customer.
Thwala believes that “had the supply chain been not disrupted, the Boxer supermarket would not have allowed us the opportunity to supply them”.
“We had ambitions to supply retailers, but there was a lot of bureaucracy around compliance issues,” said Thwala.
“In the middle of 2020, we got a call from a local Boxer to supply the store with cabbages, [and] that changed many things for the company,” said Thwala.
Thwala co-founded Agrikool in 2019 with Palesa Motaung, who acts as the company’s operations officer. AgriKool uses technology to gather data to inform farmers about market trends, which Thwala says is aimed at bringing down the cost of food and reducing the overhead costs for farmers. So far over 100 farmers, including small and commercial farmers, are on the platform.
He said the company has grown from supplying 100 cabbages a day to thousands a month. Other produce sourced from its pool of farmers is beetroot and potatoes.
Freshmark, the Shoprite group’s fruit and vegetable procurement and distribution arm, has also enrolled AgriKool as a vegetable supplier. As larger partnerships open up, more small and medium farmers who often face difficulty accessing the market and dealing with a number of factors such as logistics and pricing have been responding to AgriKool’s business.
“The farming industry is highly fragmented by nature. Each producer operates on its own and bears all the costs of running the business, something which often adds to already high input costs,” said Thwala.
Nod from Google
Thwala, an agriculture engineering graduate, says he established the business after experiencing challenges as a small producer.
“By eliminating challenges in the agri value chain, farmers are free to focus on production. Farming on its own is a risky business, crops can be destroyed by hail and other things and a farmer can have a good harvest but have nowhere to take it, which results in a loss.”
AgriKool is one of the five South African tech startups that have secured a slice of Google’s $4 million funding initiative, the Startups Black Founders Fund (BFF) for Africa, which benefits entrepreneurs from across the continent. A total of 60 startups have been selected for this year.
Thwala said the recipients of Google funding were not allowed to disclose their share of financial support, but the money each recipient ranges between $50 000 and $100 000. AgriKool will use the funds to help the company expand its reach as demand grows. Prior to receiving Google funding, AgriKool was supported by different grant funding initiatives from the private sector.
It now wants to reach the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo in a bid to get more farmers as demand grows, and it is looking at recruiting people for critical roles in finance and technology.
“We have more demand than supply; therefore, we are looking for more farmers on our platform to fill that gap,” said Thwala.
Innovative entrepreneurs in agriculture are increasingly getting the attention of investors and in May, a Naspers early-stage tech investment vehicle, Naspers Foundry, made a R40 million investment in Nile, an agritech outfit in the same space as AgriKool.
Nile, co-founded by Louis de Kock, Eugene Roodt and Rick Kleinhans, has been in business since 2020.
This content was originally published here.