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Helping digital entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector to grow: insights from the CTA's AgriHack Talent initiative

Thursday, 25 October 2018 Updated on Thursday, 8 November 2018

by Ken Lohento - Sr Programme Coordinator, ICT4Ag

In a sector as complicated as e-agriculture, supporting young innovators and entrepreneurs through mentoring and providing access to financing, is of particular importance.

The 2018 Pitch AgriHack edition was held on the 8th September 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda. This start-up competition, organised as part of the AgriHack Talent initiative, is one of the initiatives carried out by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in order to support young entrepreneurs and innovators who are developing digital services for the agricultural sector in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP). The eight award-winning start-ups received subsidies of up to €15,000. They will also benefit from the support of CTA and its partners.

Every start-up needs support, because they rarely have all the necessary skills for success in-house. The information and communication technology (ICT) discipline is relatively new within the agricultural sector and is particularly complex. In order to develop their start-ups, entrepreneurs must not only be experts in business management, but also have a good understanding of new technologies and the specifics of the agricultural sector. Therefore, it is not only about developing services that can be deemed useful, but also about establishing an efficient client development strategy (which requires the education and training of farmers) and determining the business models that can establish long-term stability.

The support provided by CTA for these young businesses takes the form of training services, mentorship and the provision of access to financing for start-ups. In parallel to the final of the 2018 edition, we organised, in partnership with Suguba Africa, a boot camp providing intensive training on how to prepare for investment. This boot camp was designed to help the 26 finalists as well as other invited start-ups) improve their financial management skills and assist their search for financing.

We at CTA regularly offer start-ups the opportunity to take part in international gatherings, such as the Social Good Summit or the World Investment Forum (organised respectively by UNDP and UNCTAD in Switzerland), the AgriStartup Summit in France or other events within ACP countries. These gatherings allow companies to meet business partners or even to secure financing. We have also signed an agreement with the African Agribusiness Incubation Network (AAIN) and Ernst & Young to provide mentorship to start-ups. We should also underline that all the start-ups who have been involved are brought together through communities of practice chaired by CTA.

The pivotal role played by innovation centres within the programme

The World Bank, in 2010, identified at least four recurrent challenges faced by new businesses: high failure rates, inexperienced young entrepreneurs, unfavourable business environments and high levels of competition from existing businesses. Within the sphere of agricultural digitalisation, these challenges are even more significant. Therefore to address these challenges, CTA allows the innovation centres, which are incubators, accelerators or co-working spaces, to participate in the management of AgriHack Talent.

The application development competitions we ran, up to 2015, show one of the ways in which we work in partnership with innovation centres. During the first regional hackathon, organised in 2013, we signed an agreement with the incubator mLab East Africa, who also worked with other incubators. These incubators contributed to the creation of the hackathon, its development, and to the organisation of preparatory hackathons at a national level. The award-winning start-ups went on to be incubated themselves, for six months, with local partners and with a financial contribution from CTA. In Uganda, Outbox Hub supported Ensibuuko, the regional award-winner. The company benefitted from the opportunity to better develop their product. Today, their financial services platform MOBIS, is used by over 50 agricultural cooperatives who serve about 250,000 farmers, and the start-up is beginning its international expansion.

Another example is from 2015, where we launched a call for proposals open to incubators in order to encourage them to organise similar activities themselves. Wennovation Hub, a Nigerian accelerator, the proposal winner, went on to develop a similar national programme called AgriTech following their work alongside CTA. The innovation centres have also been involved in the evaluation and promotion of Pitch AgriHack. To date, we have worked with more than 30 organisations.

One of the desired objectives from working alongside the innovation centres is to contribute to the promotion and development of the services that they are offering the agricultural sector. A large proportion of these organisations is relatively new, and despite certain challenges due to this, they play an essential role in the development of digital initiatives in ACP countries. This is how the CTA initiative supporting young start-ups is set up. The successes that we have had are thanks to the work of these various professional organisations and the significant efforts of the start-ups.

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