Michael Ocansey, a computer science specialist, and Francis Obirikorang, a chemical engineer, developed the online platform, AgroCenta, won CTA’s 2017 Pitch AgriHack initiative, which gives youth entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop their business services and accelerate the adoption of their services. In an interview with CTA, Ocansey talks about AgroCenta – which links small-scale farmers and farmer organisations in Ghana with a big online market to improve the prices they receive for their commodities.
How did you become involved in Pitch AgriHack?
We applied for the competition in Eastern Africa in 2016. We pitched the idea of AgroCenta but did not win. We watched all of the winning pitches and picked up a few ideas from them about storytelling. Our story was about how a farmer is not able to sell their produce because middle men rip them off with low prices, and how, with the right market, farmers can improve their yields and make more money. So in 2017 we entered the Pitch AgriHack competition again and won in Côte d’Ivoire in 2017.
How did CTA help you?
CTA helped us connect with a lot of partners, and they have involved us in programmes that have been beneficial to our business. For example, we have learned how to improve our business skills and operations. At Pitch AgriHack we were exposed to different people in the agribusiness sector; you can learn from what other people in different parts of the continent are doing and apply this to help your business. So a solution that might work for somebody in Nigeria that you never heard about can apply to you. The art of story telling in our pitches is also something we picked up at AgriHack; we have used that skill to win seven awards.
What are the key lessons you have learned?
We learned how to pitch properly and to network with other people in agriculture, and we learned about the role of agriculture policies we were not really concerned about before. It is important to master the field you are in. Francis and I do not have an agriculture background but have been learning a lot through interactions with our staff trained in agriculture and players we have the opportunity to meet. In the past we would ignore something like Spore but now I read it thoroughly because there is a lot of information related to my field. We lived among farmers in the northern region of Ghana for a while to understand their problems. For example, logistics are problematic and commodity prices go up and down. There are so many things in the value chain that can destabilise the market but you have to be aware of them.
Was it your dream to get into the agriculture sector?
No. We honestly never thought about agriculture. Francis and I had a startup called Swappaholics, which was a barter trading platform targeted mostly at people who did not have enough money to buy new things, but it was not as successful as we had expected and we closed it in 2015. Before we launched Swappaholics, we had worked with Esoko which had an agriplatform, and that was the only thing linking us to agriculture. After Swappaholics folded, we travelled to Ghana’s northern region and realised that farmers struggled to sell their commodities, AgroCenta was born.
What impact has AgroCenta had?
We have seen improvements in farmers’ livelihoods because we give them a fair price for the commodities they produce and help them with better farming practices so they increase their yields. Seeing farmers being able to pay school fees for their families has given us joy about what we do. Agriculture is the space we should be in.
Before AgroCenta farmers were selling to middle men at sometimes ridiculously low prices for maize, for instance. At the time a middle man would buy a 50 kg bag of maize for US$9 (40 cedis) and we would buy it for US$11 (49 cedis). We deal mostly in maize, sorghum and soya beans and have a five year contract with a big organisation that has a constant demand for these commodities.
In 2016 we sponsored 400 farmers, the majority of whom were women. We provided them with seed, fertilisers and tractor services. These farmers had an assured market. Everything they produced got purchased by us at prevailing market prices, enabling them sell quickly and earning higher.
What challenges did you face in developing AgroCenta?
We faced a lot of constraints, one of which was finance. We were lucky to get an investor at the right time, otherwise we would have gone bust. Regular banks do not give start up financing and other financial institutions thought we were a young company and too risky. We were posting a lot of things on social media about our activities and we think the investor saw the passion with which we were doing our business and they invested.
What is next?
This year we have big ambitions. We are increasing our farmer target from 10,000 to 50,000, We have also completed work on Version 2 of our finance app AgroPay and currently onboarding financial institutions and lending companies who want to provide farmers with access to. These two objectives are being particularly facilitated by the grant we won at Pitch Agrihack 2017. We also won the Seedstars global summit competition in April and went on to raise $600,000 of our intended US$750,000. We are looking to also expand from three to six regions in Ghana by end of the year. The future is promising for AgroCenta.