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Of financiers, farm-ternships and a failed catfish farmer

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After losing 700 of 1,000 catfish fingerlings in her debut fish farming enterprise, Divine-Love Akam switched to working in agriculture, a sector many investors and banks think twice about supporting.

 “I have been asked why I chose a career in agriculture and I say it is my fish. Failure with the fish farm taught me about business skills,” says Akam, an economist and co-founder of eFarms, an agribusiness and agritraining star-tup started in 2017. eFarms is an online platform that allows farm investors to fund smallholder farmers and provides agriculture training for youths and graduates on agriculture skills.

eFarms won the 2017 CTA Pitch AgriHack competition held in Côte d’Ivoire so CTA is supporting the company to lease and cultivate at least 100 ha to 100 smallholder farmers across three locations in Nigeria and provide 200 ‘graduate farmers’ with on-farm training in their chosen field of interest. In addition, CTA is supporting eFarms to provide 50 ‘farm-ternships’ for students enrolled in higher education courses and raise at least ₦10 million (€22,000) from a minimum of 50 farm-investors.

Akam says she was motivated to enter the Pitch AgriHack competition to fund eFarms but she got more than she expected. Exposure to business management training and networking has helped eFarms solve the problem of access to farming inputs by sourcing funds from investors. Farmers are not given cash but inputs depending on the size of their farm and the crop grown.

Farming innovation lures investors

“If we were to give farmers cash, they can do anything they want with the money and when it is lost we have to pay because we know it will be difficult for them to pay back, but by giving them seeds and fertilisers they focus on farming. We are monitoring the operation to ensure they produce efficiently and effectively to meet the buyers demands,” said Akam, who is currently working with youths and a cluster of 20 farmers mostly in maize and cassava production in Iseyin town in the Oyo State, south-west Nigeria.

Under the eFarms training model, youths receive intensive 3 month training involving class lectures and practical training with experienced farmers. However, despite wide interest from graduate youths across Nigeria, most could not afford the course, which costs ₦75,000 (€170). eFarms is therefore discussing partnerships with large companies to sponsor the youth so they can be trained for free.

“Our model is going to make a difference because discussions about agribusiness have been about encouraging youth participation and that’s our main aim. Women and youths are the future of agribusiness because after the training we want them to start their own farms,” said Akam. “They are learning to earn money; even with basic skills they are well grounded and know how to manage an agriculture business.”

Training turns farmers into entrepreneurs

Reflecting on the training provided during Pitch AgriHack, Akam says she learned that start-ups should not rush getting into equity investors early on as they run the risk of undervaluing their business. Instead they should grow the business organically and opt for debt financing. Equity investors can be invited at a later stage when they want to expand the business.

Delegates at an agribusiness conference and exposition held in Dakar, Senegal from 7–9 March 2018, and hosted by long-standing CTA partner, African Agribusiness Incubator Network (AAIN), stated that a lack of financing, limited entrepreneurial training and skills, and emerging new technologies were a barrier to establishing agribusiness incubators in Africa. “Even when there is technology to help agriculture there are still some skills that only farmers who have been farming for a long time have that technology cannot provide, making sharing and transfer of knowledge important,” said Akam. “Youths should go into agribusiness not just to continue a generational practice but to benefit from the transfer of skills and I believe the agribusiness incubator concept is a perfect vehicle for this because the training is practical and a young farmer learns from an experienced farmer and vice versa.”        

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