Catching up with Agripreneur winners at the African Development Bank AgriPitch competition

The African Development Bank’s virtual African Youth Agripreneur Forum and AgriPitch Competition (AYAF/AgriPitch 2020) – currently underway – coincides with the African Union’s Africa Youth Month.(link is external) Both celebrate the positive impact that youth-led innovation is having on Africa’s development.

AYAF/AgriPitch 2020 kicked off on 3 November with the first of three weekly webinars, and will run through 17 November when it closes with the AgriPitch competition winners’ ceremony. The competition rewards youth agripreneurs with a combined $120,000 in prizes, investment opportunities, and post-competition mentorship and training.

The event draws participation by hundreds of youth agripreneurs, government agencies, development partners, private sector leaders and potential investors from across the continent to help young entrepreneurs in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors to scale up their businesses.

Horticulture business founder Paul Sheppard of South Africa and Ugandan agritech entrepreneur Joseph Ogwal were among the winners of $74,000 in prizes in last year’s AgriPitch competition.

We asked Sheppard and Ogwai about how their start-ups have evolved since last year’s AYAF in Cape Town, South Africa. Questions and Answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: How did you apply the AgriPitch prize money to your business?

Future Farms co-founder Paul Sheppard, who won $10,000 in AgriPitch’s early start-up category said, “The money eased our cash flow so we could buy stock in greater volumes and upgrade our indoor [hydroponics] farm in Johannesburg.

“We added more grow units and grow systems, and that increased our ability to produce more crops. It increased our investment in our food systems, resulting in a 15-20% increase in Future Farms’ output.”

Agro-Supply co-founder Joseph Ogwal, who placed third in the early start-up category, took home $6,000 said, “That money came at the right time – we were able to hire a full-time sales and marketing person.

“Fundraising and marketing were the parts we were struggling with before AYAF, I was doing it by myself. With the sales and marketing hire, we doubled the number of small-holder farmers using our mobile app’s lay-away [pay in installments] system to 10,000.”

Paul Sheppard celebrates his ApriPitch win with Joyene Isaacs, then Head of Department of Agriculture, Western Cape Government, South Africa.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your start-up’s operations?

Sheppard: “After winning the AgriPitch prize, we got a lot of publicity that led to many companies approaching us to invest in Future Farms. We actually got to a stage with a company that had all but signed the commitment to invest … then COVID-19 struck and it hamstrung the money from moving. Because the company paused investments, our deal won’t go ahead until after we’ve gotten through this pandemic. We’ll survive, but COVID-19 is going to slow down our growth.”

Ogwal: “Farmers using our mobile lay-away system would go to a local store or agent to purchase a scratch card, and then use that to add money to their account [to purchase seeds, fertilizers, etc.].

“When coronavirus started, there was a lot of social distancing, so we had to innovate our operations to match social distancing norms. So, we incorporated a mobile money digital platform allowing farmers to directly add lay-away funds, without the store or agent interaction.

“We implemented individual appointments for farmers to pick seed, fertilizer and chemicals [pesticides] from our distribution centres to reducing crowding. We even started using motorcycles to deliver small packages to each small holder farmer who completed lay-away payments.”

AgriPitch winner Joseph Ogwal, center, at the Bank’s AYAF and AgriPitch conference in 2019.

Q: How did you change your business model as a result of the AYAF prize?

Sheppard: “We realized through the AYAF business training sessions that we needed to create a deeper case study, deeper examples of how our [hydroponic agriculture] systems work and why they are feasible.

“Now, we know that when you go to an investor, a potential client or partner, and they ask, “Where is the proof?” – you will have done your proof and you have data to prove it. That was a bit of a learning curve for us.”

Ogwal: “We learned to transform the way were operating, to focus more on the way we are marketing ourselves and our concept of a lay-away system for farmers who were used to taking out loans.

“We want farmers to understand the importance of using their own money to invest in agriculture rather than taking loans from financial institutions.

“The AgriPitch prize money also helped us pay for a radio marketing campaign that reached more than 20,000 smallholder famers in Uganda – and that was really great.”

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