Today, April 26 2022, Farmerline is announcing that it has secured $6.4 million in Pre-Series A investment and an additional $6.5 million in debt. Farmerline is an AgriTech business known as “the Amazon for farmers in Africa.” We recently sat down with Alloysius Attah, founder and CEO of Farmerline, to hear the remarkable story of Farmerline.
Starting from his humble beginnings growing up in a farming community in Ghana, Alloysius met his co-founder Emmanuel Addai in a dorm room at university. Together they rode the early hype around SMS messaging to deliver market prices to farmers – and quickly realized that farmers in Ghana need much more than just text messages. For the decade to follow, Alloysius has tirelessly pursued the elusive mission of creating real value for smallholder farmers. In the first iteration, they brought information and insights directly to farmers through voice messages. In the second iteration, they empowered agricultural extension workers to streamline trainings; provide quality seed and fertilizer; and even offer financing.
Then, in 2020, Farmerline made a pivotal strategic shift. In a key moment of crisis created by the COVID-19 epidemic, 2020 was truly a “make it or break it” year. Through an extraordinary push from Alloysius and his team, Farmerline catapulted from its roots in Ghana towards the global stage. Today it provides the technology platform used by organizations in 26 countries to streamline the agricultural value chain, serving over a million farmers in Africa.
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- Gustav Praekelt of Praekelt.org (South Africa). Praekelt runs the most popular WhatsApp service in the globe: the WHO COVID-19 information hotline.
This is an automatically generated transcript from the full interview. Like humans, machines aren’t perfect, so there may be some inaccurate or amusing transcription errors.
Alloysius: I’m from Ghana. I was born and I grew up in school in Ghana. I’m specifically from the Volta region, which is on the border of Ghana and Togo. My dad was a teacher. My late dad was a teacher. My mom is a trader and my auntie was a small scale farmer. I stayed with her for the first 15 years of my life right before high school and during that time that was when I got introduced into agriculture. My story is not different, though. Many young Africans who grew up outside of the cities, Kumasi and Accra, would have something to do with farming. That’s my story. So I’ll go to school during the weekdays, usually from eight in the morning to like four or 5 p.m. in the evening, come back home, helps with the house chores, and then on the weekends, Saturday, Sunday, you go to farm and support the family.
Rowena: What did she grow and how did she enlist your childhood self to help out?
Alloysius: She was she was doing a mixed cropping, so she was growing yam. She actually won the best farmer. Yam farmer in our district.
Rowena: So she’s a good farmer.
Alloysius: She was a good farmer. Yeah. She was growing maize, too. And, you know, anything basically to feed the family and to share the rice and maybe sell some. She pulled us along to the farm. I wasn’t very enthused at the time. I remember I would go to the farm and I would refuse to work and I would sleep and I
Rowena: Like many kids. Like many kids.
Rowena: You just want to play with your friends. [00:05:00]
Alloysius: Exactly. You know, I didn’t want to be on a farm. But yeah, that’s a very interesting experience in my life.
Rowena: Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure there’s there’s nothing quite like that, that experience in your family, in your home
Rowena: As you’re growing out, when you went to your further studies, when you went to university, was your thought that you would go into the agricultural space?
Alloysius: No. I thought it was actually by by accident. Actually, it’s a very interesting fact. Like, I don’t speak for all farmers, but most farmers don’t want your kids to end up in agriculture or farming. You know, like just because we,
Alloysius: You know, we’ve seen a lot of examples of people creating wealth or, you know, building a better life from farming. And that’s true. Farmers want to create wealth. They just don’t want to survive. They don’t want to make money and then feed themselves and then wait for the next cycle and then feed themselves. No. Contrary to popular belief, they all have dreams of creating wealth. So my parents told me, like you get a steady heart and leave this business behind and not be in farming. Now, something that
Alloysius: Was instilled in me since from my early days to how I ended up in agriculture was actually by accident. My dad and my uncle actually selected my program for me because they thought when they saw I need renewable natural resources in college, but they didn’t pay attention to the renewable, they just saw natural resources. And at that time, 2008, 2009, Ghana discovered oil. So when they saw natural resources like, oh, hey, go steady this cause you’re going to work in the oil and gas industry.
Alloysius: And then,
Rowena: What a misunderstanding.
Alloysius: You know, and in my first lecture in college, I got my rude awakening when you were telling us the career prospects and was all agriculture, forestry, agroforestry, wood, science, you know, fisheries. And it was then
Rowena: You’re like, Oh, man,
Rowena: What did I get myself into?
Alloysius: Exactly. I decided, Daryn, that I didn’t you know, I had to do something else to give myself a better shot at life, to get a better job after school. So I started learning anything I could get my hands on. Like I was doing photography video. I started learning how to code, you know, teaching myself and learning from my peers, my colleagues.
Rowena: So even from day one, you were in this program, you were adhering to what your family pressures and the market pressures were saying. So you’re in this program, but you were already thinking, I want to do something different. You know, maybe maybe I’ll be in the sector, but I’m going to approach it from a different angle. Is that right?
Alloysius: Exactly. Exactly. But it was more from a point of survival, right? Like because you want to finish school, get a job, and also pay your dues, you know, take care of the family if you can and support your parents. So that’s that’s that’s what it is. The sacrifices in school, you get a job and then you come back and you support like, you know, to push your family forward. So for me, it was about survival and it was about getting a job that pays well, that allows me to take care of myself and then also be there for my family and show up for them.
Rowena: Yeah. Yeah. And I can hear even in your voice, there’s a responsibility that you have. You know, the family comes first. You got to support the family. You’ve got to make ends meet. And that same ethos, that same sentiment is what makes it hard for a lot of people to start a new venture,
Rowena: Because there’s so much risk in that early stage. Like, it’s very like the culture isn’t there
Rowena: The way that it is in other countries. So what was it that gave you that push? How did you decide to set off on your own?
Alloysius: It was just ignorance, man. Like, I wasn’t aware of how difficult this is. Right. Everybody, like, glorifies what it means to start a business. Right. We got
Alloysius: A good pass. I didn’t know about how hard it was going to be.
Rowena: That’s a good answer.
Alloysius: And then also, I
Alloysius: Was young enough to take a risk. Right. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities at the time. If someone asked me if I to start a company now like it would be, you know, I would hesitate because my responsibilities are just different now. Right.
Rowena: And you know what you’re getting yourself into,
Alloysius: Right. Yeah, I know. Now, like, you know, at that time when I when I finished college, he was my idea. I’m like, you know what? I’m going to try this thing and see if it works out. If it doesn’t work out, I’m going to use my failure story to write a good thesis and get into some master’s program around the world or whatever it is is going to be a win win situation. And,
Rowena: Love that attitude.
Alloysius: You know, and then and then we started talking to our customers. We started speaking to the farmers. And all all I could see is family, my relatives, people I grew up with. And it became personal. Then we
Alloysius: Realized that. Therefore it is no joke. Second of all, for the population that we are targeting, you have to create value in order to capture value. You need to do good in order to be paid because this is a population that doesn’t have a lot of money sitting down. So if you are trying to make money from farmers, you’ve got to help farmers increase yield. You’ve got to help them sell it. When they make money, then they pay you a fraction of what you help them capture. Right. So just that’s been our journey today and that’s something that we are still getting [00:10:00] better at every day, all creating value for farmers and getting paid for some of the value that we create. And another time we didn’t know what social enterprise was. I didn’t know what a word was. I didn’t even understand you not even know there was a whole community for impact investors. It wasn’t a ten. All we saw was what was happening in Kenya with Ushahidi and M-Pesa and all these things. And then here in the Facebook story, most young coders want to be that right. But then when we started realizing that our market is not going to be like Facebook, we’re not just going to build a tech and then go viral overnight. You have to create value. You have to understand agriculture. First of all, you have to connect with your audience. You have to earn trust, and you have to use that trust that you’ve earned to to work. We have to listen to right. Listen to them, because most of the time they have solutions to the problems that they are facing and then work with them to find solutions that create change that that change behavior that actually makes impact that last.
Rowena: That’s one of things I love about Farmerline is your dedication to your your client. You want to help them make money through all the different means, and you do it in so many different ways, and we’ll get to that. But when you started out of university, you’re creating Farmerline. What was the first thing that you tried?
Alloysius: How we started with technology. My partner and I, my co-founder Emmanuel, and also our dad, he was he had a similar story to me, too. His mom had a clinic in a farming community, and he spent his entire life seeing many women farmers coming to the clinic and not being able to afford basic health care, primary health care that troubled him. Right. So I met him when I got my first computer in 2009, ever in my life with my student loan. And then I was learning how to code. His roommate was teaching me how to code. So I was going to his room to study. So then we became friends and then we co-founded this company together. So we approached the problem from a technology point of view. We spent six months building tech, and we’re building it on two things that many, many people have mobile phones in Ghana, and if you send information to people, then they will use it and then they will take action, change behavior and only to impact. So we built like an SMS application because we assumed that SMS would work for everyone because we use SMS. So after six months of building and we went to the field with him to speak to the agricultural extension officers employed by the government and started interacting with some farmers, we realized that SMS wouldn’t work. So that showed us very quickly
Rowena: Ha ha.
Alloysius: The importance of talking to customers. First of all, right. You know, putting your ego aside, learning from your customers, understanding what is like in understanding what is happening, understanding the problem, understanding what works and most of the time taking what is working and, you know, making it more efficient. Right. So we realized that people enjoy talking to each other. People only listens to extension officers because of one. They speak the same language as them and too, they trust them and they know their house. So if you tell me to do something on my farm and it goes bad, I’m going to come to your house. Hey, hey. You lie to me so there’s not trust. So you can just build technology, sit in Accra and send a bunch of text messages to people and expect them to believe it. One, And then take action and change behavior and put their livelihood on the line. Right. So for us, we learned very quickly that the extension officer is still going to be a key part. Technology cannot replace that entirely, at least not now. It’s still very far away from that. And then we were like and we started thinking about how can we magnify the impact of the station of a startup? So we built like we’re one of the first companies to build like a voice platform to send messages to farmers in audio, right? So you can record an extension of this message conversation and blasted out to thousands of farmers. They can get the message in their native language. They can hear the voice of the extension of that I didn’t know and trust and I’ve built relationships with. So by so doing, we are magnifying the impact of the extension officer and then we are reducing the cost of they sending information to farmers, which is something that is complementing the existing system and making it more efficient, which was our trump card. That was a holy grail for us at the time. That helped us to actually kick start Farmerline and gain some credibility.
Rowena: Right. And what I find so many things interesting about that journey and that arc that you took first on the SMS side in terms of SMS ing market information to farmers, I remember in that period, maybe even a bit earlier in 2010, the big success story of Agritech was around SMS farmers market information. So in Ghana there’s Soko and they were sending out all this information and that was actually a very common application in a very small space and one that had some studies to back it up like this will actually help farmers out. But what’s interesting is the gap between research and actually what works on the ground. So you’re talking there about interacting with the [00:15:00] farmers and hearing, hey, I don’t read written tweet, I don’t understand this SMS. Like, how can we open up access? How can we make this accessible to people who might not be accessible through SMS? What was your first client or partner? What was your first deployment?
Alloysius: Our first one of our first clients was a meter. Was actually like a Canadian NGO that was working with about 20,000 soybean farmers in northern Ghana. I remember running into the country manager
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Country at the time, catering at an event in Tamale, and she gave us a shot as to when I think I still didn’t know what she saw, but I bet the woman is a missionary she gave us. She’s a visionary, right? She gave us a shot
Rowena: Bless her.
Alloysius: And we started putting her.
Rowena: She saw the energy in your eyes, I’m sure.
Alloysius: Exactly right. So give us a shot. And we got to this point by learning with partners like, damn right, we brought in what we did best, which was build technology that makes things simple and more efficient. They they work with farmers. They have the on the ground game like agent network training programs already built. So as we work through that, we learn from them. And a lot of the models actually influence what we do on the ground today in Ghana.
Rowena: Nice. What did you do for them? And did everything work perfectly smoothly the first time?
Alloysius: Oh, no, we made a lot of mistakes. So basically learning about. So first we’re sending like very long messages to families. Right. So you send like many, many messages are too long to send. So learning like how long the message should be 60 seconds and below actually works
Rowena: They drop off.
Rowena: They don’t listen.
Alloysius: They don’t send the time of the message to. So you would like if the on the farm you know they often put their phone somewhere and I shared so if you send a coordinator then you miss them so early in the morning or late in the evening when you’re back home knowing the cycle of your like religious activities as well. Just learning, learning how to combine message is sensitive phone and also the workshops are actually happen. So if they are trained on financial literacy today, you want to send remind us to them 24 hours or 48 hours from now instead of like sending them something that is random, like, let’s see, on average planning like, you know, you have to coordinate like the messages that you’re sending to their phone versus what is happening on the field in order to drive adoption. That’s another we’ve seen that has worked really well. And we learned that over time as we working with them, building the agent network to right and letting them know that this technology is now supposed to replace them and putting them at ease that is supposed to magnify your impact and help you to be more effective and efficient and reach a lot more people and actually reduce the stress that you face right now is something that was a very critical part that we have to learn with them as well.
Rowena: Yeah. And I really like your emphasis there on the agent network, on the Agricultural extension workers or whatever you want to call them, because there’s something about that human interaction with somebody else from your community who can explain
Rowena: How to do things better. I think a lot of organizations miss that.
Rowena: They think, Oh, technology will solve this. We’ll send them a bunch of messages. They’ll read them. They’ll change their behavior. Was there any any experience, any story that has guided your intuition around the fact that extension workers and messaging needs to go hand in hand? Or is that is that just what you know from your experience in a farming community?
Alloysius: Yes. From experience. Actually, like a lender, heavily from some of the funders that we worked with, as was we we work with like people like Mulago and other people who like, they hold us to really, really high standard on impacts. Right. Like they help us understand if there’s no change in behavior, there’s no impact. Right. So they our funders and our shareholders are supportive. Our team, they keep asking us, how do you know you’re making impact? We are the first investors, we are the most important investors in intervention that we are that that we are doing we are spending our life to create impact. So we owe it to ourselves to know firsthand if we are making impact or not before you report to any other shareholder or any external funder. Right. So the question is like if you’re sending a bunch of images like messages to people, how do you know that it is driving the intended impact? How do you know that people are actually adopting what you are preaching and changing behavior towards impact and also profitability? And when we started like assessing our work, we actually did like some study, like a linear study by our impact team led by my colleague Lilly. We liked from the work that, you know, if you just send voice messages to people randomly, it doesn’t actually drive adoption. You have to.
Alloysius: Yeah, it doesn’t like you have to.
Rowena: This random machine calls me and tells me things like, I’m not going to turn my whole farm around because of that.
Alloysius: Exactly right. So it has to be combined with people, right. And then if you
Alloysius: Do all people as well, it is highly impactful, but it doesn’t drive. It drives adoption by it’s not scalable and it’s also very expensive. So like
Alloysius: A very in a very interesting combination of field work combined with training actually check the three boxes, which is impacts of your intervention, scalability and cost effectiveness. And you need all those three boxes [00:20:00] checked from our work, from our line of work in order to like make lasting change. And
Alloysius: Combining those three actually helps versus just choosing one.
Rowena: Absolutely. I know there’s a lot of critique out there for the impact investing space. Is it impact or is it investing? Why do you try to be both sides of that? But ultimately, what you’re talking about is a great example of what impact investing works. Those organizations gave you funding in order to move forward your business model, but they also demanded not just ask, but demanded that you be accountable for the impact side.
Rowena: And that’s how you now have this this joint model that includes the extension workers as well as the remote messaging. And that’s something that it’s unclear whether other kinds of investment approaches could have had that kind of an outcome.
Rowena: So as Farmerline has evolved, I know it provides a basket of different services, you know, to the actors that it serves. How did you navigate that decision, particularly in the early years of defining Farmerline? You know, is it a you know, because you can imagine there’s lots of companies that do just messaging or just extension workers or just supply chain or just financing. How did you navigate the decision of of when to grow what you were as a as an offering and when to say no?
Alloysius: The way we make decisions about what to earn has been impact in life. Our mission, Farmerline mission, is to create lasting profits for farmers everywhere. So then everyday we’re asking
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Ourselves, what else can we do to get closer to that mission? And then we also think about it from the view of sustainability, the impact we are creating. Can we keep it going? Can you pay for itself? So those two things, that’s what we use every day to make a decision. So for instance, our work in Ghana, we stayed in one location with our fieldwork direct
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Field work up until 2019. Right, trying to figure out how
Alloysius: Our fieldwork was actually working. Like we need to figure out because, you know, when we when we discovered technology alone couldn’t do everything, we had to figure out a field like agent network and composition and training that actually is scalable, delivers the impact that we want and also cost effective. So we had to try many methods in the Ashanti region.
Alloysius: Right. So we.
Rowena: So you had you had sort of a test site in Ashanti region in Ghana that you were experimenting with and innovating. What was that like? Tell me more about that test site.
Alloysius: Yeah, exactly. So it’s just like we’re using the entire region where we experimented with where we had like a team in the office that was just blasting our messages to the field and then receiving phone calls from farmers. And then we recruited agents or working for us on commission. And then we had all our agents on payroll, full time payroll, and now we have a mix of people on commission people, people on payroll and then backed by technology. So we needed to figure that one out before scaling. Right. So it’s easy to scale
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Very quickly. It’s easy to be in every place and record huge numbers that we’ve sent 10 million messages and have X million farmers. But the question you have to ask yourself is how much impact are you making and how sustainable is our impact?
Alloysius: And for us like it is very important for us to be sustainable because that’s the reason behind Farmerline. We believe that the business of food is very important and we make a lot of impact, but it should pay for itself as well because many people are spending a lot of money on food. Huge businesses are built around food. Small scale farmers can participate and we can build some business like principles into the matter of agriculture and food. So it was very important for us to show that you can make impact but then also create a business around it. Right. So we still you know, we stayed in one place
Alloysius: Up until 2019 and 2020. We started scaling very quickly because we don’t you know, we’ve not learned everything, but we’ve learned enough to scale the impact that we are making and grow to serve a lot more farmers in Ghana. So, for instance, last year we saved about 79,000 farmers directly with high quality fertilizer and seeds, provide training for them, and then also connected a lot of them to market. So for others, like the food package, that actually gets us closer to our mission of creating profit, not just income profits, meaning that they have to find ways to you know, we have to help them find ways to reduce cost of farming and we have to help them find ways to increase yield and then income through farming. And then what stays in your pocket is what matters, because it is the money that they use to go after their dreams, to put their kids to school and provide better healthcare,
Alloysius: You know, like all the farmers that we grew up with. So it was very important for us.
Rowena: Yes, exactly. And I’ve heard I’ve heard that particular model described as a as a scale and stabilize. You know, it’s kind of like one of those lumpy slides
Alloysius: Yeah. Yeah.
Rowena: That you that you go down where you you need to. There’s sometimes the organization just focuses on on replication and expansion and sometimes it focuses on changing its products, sort of refining what it is, making sure [00:25:00] that it’s you have the the core flywheel in place before you supercharge it and you put it everywhere that you can. And it goes it goes in cycles. So if up until 2019, it sounds like you were stabilizing, you’re refining the product. And then from 2019, you really hit the gas pedal in terms of your growth,
Rowena: Which is explains where you are now in their 25 countries with all the different all the different farmers that you served when you got to the point where you felt like, okay, we have we have something good here. We have a product that’s that’s going to help farmers make money. How did you how did you hit the gas pedal on it? How did you go to market? What was your plan of attack?
Alloysius: We started looking at like partnership, right? You know, we are missionaries and missionaries. We wanted to we knew that we were not the only ones solving the problem of feeding the future. There are many organizations that care about that from development organizations that are well equipped and well resourced that care for the same mission. They are private people. They are government people. So we just look around who is who else is working towards this problem and then how can we work with them and how
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Do we bring what we know best, which is technology to build, technology to digitize the process, create like in Ghana intelligence and help make faster decisions to scale. So we’ve started working with some of the largest food companies in the world. We’ve worked with Hershey. We work with Hershey. We worked with government, the government of Ghana, government of Benin. Using our technology, we work with large development organizations like Agra in Ghana, made out of Canadian NGOs. So we just looked around and started working with people and bringing the value that like, you know, just bring it to the table. We know how to do best and we’re learning from them too. So we’ve learned so much about how to develop content for farmers, how to build your agent network. Working with those partners actually helped us to like improve our model drastically because there are many things that they do really, really, really well that we’ve learned from. So we started looking own face. Our model is always partnership. We don’t we don’t envision Farmerline being everywhere in the world and having offices everywhere. But there are many organizations that are motivated and well-funded towards a similar mission or if not the same. And we try to work with them to partner with them outside of Ghana, outside of West Africa, we are purely a technology player, so we deploy our technology across all these 26 countries through partners, over 80 partners. We
Alloysius: Provide support to them on how they can absorb and use our technology in their work in Ghana, in West Africa, as is the lab where we keep innovating. By doing so, we build out. We build our own own agent network. We support farmers directly. We buy their crops, we provide training for them. We distribute like thousands of bags of fertilizer to them. And through that, we learn, we innovate, we digitize and build intelligence and everything that we built in Ghana, everything that we built in Ghana to support our mission, we launched that. It’s true government. We give it to large food companies and we give it to large NGOs who share the same mission. So that is a plan
Alloysius: Of attack. Like it is only true partnership that we can increase our chance of feeding the future. It is not a winner take all, in my opinion.
Rowena: That makes that makes a lot of sense. You sure you don’t want a Farmerline office in all the countries? Okay, I’m kidding. Now, let me let me unpack a little bit what you’re talking about there. So on the one hand, you’re talking about building a sustainable business that’s going to create value. You’re going to get value from that. And you’re also you’re also leveraging your your partnerships and the investment in order to in order to hit the expansion goals that you have. But so the core intervention that you have, is it a service for partners or are you going directly to the farmers? How does it actually work?
Alloysius: Yeah, that’s a very good question. So we do both.
Rowena: Or the both? I called it.
Alloysius: We do both in a structured way, right? Like for us, we like to think of ourselves as doctors, right? You can’t tell someone what
Alloysius: To do. You can advise them on new ways. If you’ve not done it yourself. You can just build technology and
Rowena: Your parents would be so proud.
Alloysius: Oh yeah. You see, this is a funny world. Yeah. Somehow. So. So you kind of like, we think that we can advise people on agriculture and using technology if we’re not practicing this ourselves. So we built the technology and then we build our network in Ghana. We do the work, too. We do the heavy lifting. You know, we source crops from farmers. We understand what it takes to move crops from one location to the other. Right. But we know we can be everywhere in the world to do that. There are many organizations to do the same thing. So instead of keeping all the knowledge and experiences and the technology and the frameworks and the model with us, we we distribute that to third parties. We’ve shown that we can distribute our technology to partners to digitize a million farmers in the world, a million of them in the world.
Alloysius: Now, the next step
Alloysius: Is everything that we are learning, from connecting farmers to market, training farmers, distributing [00:30:00] high quality fertilizer and seeds. But latency might seem like old school, but they were invented 100 years ago. African farmers only use about 14 kg per hectare as compared to over one in 20 kilograms per hectare. You know, farmers in North America use one in 20 kilograms per hectare. Farmers in Africa usually want 14 kg.
Alloysius: Huge gap.
Rowena: I did not know that.
Alloysius: Exactly. So it’s a huge gap. So anything is oh, based on pricing, it’s all based on cost of distribution. These are things that technology and other forms of intervention. Can this massive room to reduce costs of moving goods around? Right. There’s massive room for sourcing crops in large quantities and while maintaining quality. So our focus is let’s keep churning out innovations with our partners on the ground in West Africa. And then what we’ve learned that seems to work really well that could be applied to the rest of the world, distribute that to true partners like governments, large food companies and also large NGOs. So that is the approach that we use because farmers need these three things to create wealth. They need to get us high quality fertilizer and seed. Even now more than ever with what is happening in Russia and Ukraine now more than ever, they need to assess that when the price of it has tripled today, they need access to high quality training in a format that helps them to change behavior they need to sell in order to make money. These things must happen at the same times in a year in order for them to increase their income and profit. So as we find new ways to help them get closer to that, we intend we intend to keep sharing them through our partners, building new partners, sharing it, as, you know, as we work towards reaching all farmers everywhere.
Rowena: That makes a ton of sense. Basically, you provide the technology platform that is informed by the work that you’re doing in Ghana,
Rowena: But it provides that holistic set
Rowena: Of services
Rowena: That the sector needs. You know, whether it be inputs, whether information passing control, disease control or financial management, or a way to mobilize and work within your agricultural extension program. You’re looking at the ecosystem and you’re providing a full stack
Rowena: Solution for the agricultural workforce. All right.
Alloysius: That’s correct.
Rowena: You have any any moments that stick out in your mind? Reflecting on the past ten years? I don’t know. We call them highest highs or lowest lows, like moments where you thought maybe you’d have to dissolve Farmerline or turn it in a very different direction.
Alloysius: Covid was a very hard one.
Rowena: Oh, yeah.
Alloysius: It’s a funny
Alloysius: Year, like 2020 was a year that we grew three times, but right before then it was the scariest thing ever because we were used to planning six months in advance, 12 months in advance, every three months. My schedule is planned. I knew what I was going to be doing, but going through an entire year, not knowing what’s going to come next and planning day by day was really exhausting and was scary when bad things happen or when. For me, when I face adversity, like, you know, my reaction is to move forward with speed, to just take it on, right? Because if I’m experiencing
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: All this pain and challenges anyway, I might as well increase my chance of getting a higher return on investment. So for me, when things got really tough, I’m like, COVID is crazy. You might as well go big or go home, right? So we we started building a lot more partnerships in 2020 by working with many more agribusinesses than we did in the years prior. And we grew our business by three eggs. It was a toughest year because we decided not to lay off anyone and we also didn’t hire. So the business grew so fast. And then the same staff size our manager group in 2019 managed a three as growth in 2020. So it was a crazy year.
Alloysius: We’re all like really burnt out. So that was like a very, very scary moment. And then there was also like a big revelation for me personally that the work at the end of the day is about people, it’s about customers, it’s about your team members, it’s about shareholders. And this job. You can succeed at this job. If you don’t challenge yourself to be better every day as a leader, you have to learn to be better
Alloysius: Because all of you feel like you have to learn to manage yourself, lead yourself, manage your emotions, learn to compartmentalize because you have like very, very big highs and so many lows, so many lows. And learning to not bring that energy to the office or let it flow in your interaction with other people is the hardest thing that I have to do. And then I learned from there on there that like if you want to take your company to the next level, continue to make impact. And in a build of big business, the biggest task is leading yourself and getting help, you know, learning new tools, getting mentors, coaches and people that helps you to become a better leader. And the first person you have to lead is yourself.
Rowena: Yeah. Wow, what a journey. What a story. Alloysius. You sound wise, in a way, as you speak, having you can I can imagine you’re in this position where there’s so much fluctuation in the market, but you still need to be there for your team. You still need to be at the head. You still need to point the way forward, even though you have no idea how it’s going to
Rowena: Go. Thankfully, [00:35:00] it’s all worked out and I can imagine how it would play out during the pandemic. You start off, you have you’re in the space where your your focus on running your own. You know, you have your own agricultural extension workers, but they can’t work anymore because of COVID and the uncertainties and everything else. But at the same time, because everyone is going virtual and everyone is limited in their travels, then the industry needs a technology solution and you happen to be an agritech business. And so it’s balancing those two changing curves at the same time. Given that you are a hybrid organization and how that how that uncertainty, how how you able to turn that into a win over the course of of COVID. So it’s a fascinating ride. I kind of it kind of makes my heart pump
Alloysius: Yeah. Just like.
Rowena: A little thinking about
Alloysius: Very thankful for the team that we built. Like, the team that we built is really. Is really agile, right? They innovators, they are entrepreneurs. They are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. They they show up every day with a problem solving mindset. They use like the three lenses that we use every day. Are we going to make impact? Can we scale this approach and it’s going to be cost effective. And when things are not going well on the field, they will call them, say, Hey, this approach that we agreed on is not going to work. Here’s what I suggest, right? So that made it easier, but that made it easier. So like, you know, just a quick shout out to our team. We wouldn’t be here. We would not be here if not for a team that we have people who care deeply about the work and are willing to go to war, are willing to give everything until we deliver impact and capture value.
Rowena: I love that. Just one last question before we switch over to the Rapid Fire segments. But one last question for you is, having worked with all the different actors in in this space, you know, to some extent, Farmerline is a digital marketplace
Rowena: For the different actors in the agricultural supply chain. What do you have any observations about how that market is broken? Are there aspects of what happens now? Like, you know, maybe it’s for a regulatory or policy or historical or colonial reasons, but do you have any observations about like how you wish this market worked differently than it does now?
Alloysius: I think I wish that the market collaborated more on building an infrastructure. And in our opinion,
Alloysius: The infrastructure is more than digital. Right. So.
Alloysius: Microsoft transaction is going to go up, which would then affect pricing if your prices are going up, if the road network is by the company’s, you know, 10 hours instead of 3 hours on the road, it’s still going to increase the cost of farming. So we can innovate and build all the technology, the solutions. But if the physical infrastructure is also not built, and if we don’t coordinate, the industry doesn’t coordinate, will not go anywhere. Look at what the finance sector has done with Social Security. We
Alloysius: Imagine if everyone have to build their own FICO score in order to extend credit. Imagine if every financial decision has to build their own Social Security system in order to extend credit
Alloysius: Or do business with their own financial. Their own customers will not be do not
Rowena: It wouldn’t
Alloysius: Be where
Alloysius: They are today. The agriculture sector needs this. Why? Because we all need to eat. There’s going to be a lot more of us on the planet. There have been more than 9 billion of us on the planet. We have to figure out a way to turn this thing around. One of the ways is to collaborate on infrastructure, both digital and physical. Right. So private sector, NGOs, social enterprises, we have to find a way to turn this thing around fast and stop working in silos, because we all we all went through the same thing. We can learn a lot from the financial sector. We can learn a lot from other distribution sectors, like we can learn distribution from Coca-Cola on how they built a business around how we can learn it from Indomie on how they build $1,000,000,000 revenue business a day by building micro-entrepreneurs to distribute their goods. The same for Coca-Cola, the same for the mobile network. There’s just so much to learn from other sectors and agriculture sector. We have to stop thinking, technology and AI and all these are going to solve everything and then do the hard work which is collaborating on the entire infrastructure. That makes it easier and cheaper to move things from one from the city to the rural areas and from the rural areas to the city. And knowing the people that we are working with, sharing, creating a shared resource. I think I think it’s time for that now. Now, then. Later.
Rowena: Yeah. Can you give an example of digital infrastructure that would make organizations like Farmerline more successful?
Alloysius: So the first thing is just, you know, knowing the people that you’re working with like, you know, like both the agri business and farmers and national agribusiness database that so if I want to if if an agribusiness comes to me and say, hey, Farmerline, I need help to buy a tractor, right? I should be able to see this agri business, first of all, who they are. There has to be something that is easy and cheap that I can just plug into they who they say they are. Have they [00:40:00] worked with any other person? They they take a loan from another bank. They they take a tractor loan from another agribusiness. And they’re just coming to me because they all work in soil and they know that we’re all interconnected so they can play us the same for farmers, too. Like identity, having, like an economic profile, a risk profile on every partner in agricultural space, not just the technology
Rowena: Mm hmm.
Alloysius: Buy intelligence that is reliable. I’ve seen many projects. They’ve all built their technology. They made it open source. But then after the project and nobody’s actually contributing data and then it dies, millions of dollars down,
Rowena: So true.
Alloysius: It’s about collaborating so that like that intelligence is actually reliable. That’s how when you when you ping phaco to find a close call someone you’re not wondering if the intelligence is true or not. You know it’s true because you build a system that ensures that that that platform is actually true. It’s all connected. You can run away from it. We need that. We need that, too. We need we need the right policies to the right the right policies that are towards reducing the cost of farming, reduce the cost of fertilizer and increasing adoption, working in the private sector, both private, public and sector, working together towards a common a common cause. So all these things are very important. We are working towards as an organization, but we can be everywhere and we can’t solve it by ourselves. We can build all the tech that we want, but collaboration, sharing data, creating a trust framework that allows people to share data without revealing too much about their business. Or we can all just like ping the system and help us focus on the main things, which is providing all the training and information to farmers so they can absorb it and change behavior, providing high quality fertilizer and seeds, competing on quality and price, connecting farmers to market and giving them more options and choices is something that we have to work on and family is working really hard towards that, but we need more people to join us.
Rowena: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Alloysius. So next, we’re going to dove into the Rapid Fire segment which closes out our interviews. First question for you, Alloysius, is if you have any asks feedback for donors or investors who fund agritech enterprises.
Alloysius: Yeah. For yeah. Like, I think they should continue holding us to higher standards of impact because from the work that we’ve seen, you can’t build a sustainable business if you don’t if you don’t create value for farmers and agribusinesses. So if we all just fighting over the same pie, then, you know, we are just going to keep fighting over the same pie. But if you’re going to if you’re trying to build
Alloysius: A big business and make large scale impact, then we should keep holding us accountable to us impact. Because if farmers don’t increase the yield, they don’t grow more crops, then you can buy more crops and then make more money from from buying and selling crops. And then also, if you are making investments on a continent and then you’re investing in AG and then you maybe you don’t have the in-house help on how agriculture actually works on the continent, how that works, the mistakes that we’ve made, lessons that we’ve learned, like just get help. Get someone who who knows that? Because I’ve seen like it’s easy to fund anyone or anything with a website, good impact story, good videos
Alloysius: Is good, like, you know, and I’m not trying to criticize anyone, but there’s so much work being done in the sector and it’s good for donors to funders to align in general to just make sure that they’re not funding things that actually drags the ecosystem back. Right. So for instance, if let’s say we are working in northern Ghana to create a business and do not come in to just make everything that we are trying to create a business around for free, it just takes everyone back. And that donor is not going to be available
Alloysius: To keep making the thing for free forever. Then we have been
Rowena: That’s true.
Alloysius: Taking us back 5 to 10 years. So basically just doing
Alloysius: The groundwork and just like doing more due diligence because it’s easy, especially
Alloysius: When it comes to donations, it’s easy to get around, write a good proposal, pretend everything is bad, and write all these sad stories and get people to fund it. And then you only see it in the news. We’ve raised X million dollars in grants and everything and then we are back to square one. So basically funding things actually drive the ecosystem forward versus funding things like that. Actually like drag is back. So getting help really works. You know, this is a very difficult thing to say because people might think you are being cocky or arrogant, but if you work in a sector where you work so hard to move things forward, only to see it being like, you know, being destroyed in court, it can be frustrating. So just collaboration and holding all of us, including Farmerline to higher standards of impact. If we say we did something, let’s show the evidence that we’ve gotten internally and then occasionally evidence that we’ve allowed a third party to gather to back the claims of income increase and behavior change that we’re like, you know, that’s something I’m I go like hold us to really highly and teaches us about. And we just hope that this can be done by all funders.
Rowena: Although it’s just you’ve really hit the nail on the head with that one. I really think we need a third party to hold donors accountable for when they mess up or destroy the agricultural market [00:45:00] that needs to exist.
Rowena: Because I’m sure donors are always destroying the market that you are serving and you will serve long term. So I really I think that’s a very powerful message. Delicious. Would you like to offer a shout out to someone who has inspired or guided your work?
Alloysius: Our customers, you know, so shout out to our customers, agri businesses, partners that we’ve worked with,
Alloysius: Farmers that we work
Alloysius: With, our team. I feel like my team, our team gave us give me so much opportunity to grow as a person. And I’m just very thankful to that for that because I wouldn’t be who I am without this job, right? So the job helped me to be a better person, first of all, to keep improving every day. So shoutout to all of them for putting up with me and still stay in my corner and. Right. So thanks to them. Yeah. And shout out to all the founders that have been in our corner from day one, even when we didn’t know anything. And we are still learning right every day. So shout out to all of them and shout out to family, you know, for being in my corner and loving me through it all.
Rowena: Yeah. That’s beautiful. Last from the Rapid Fire is just for fun. If you could recommend a book, a blog or a podcast that you’ve enjoyed just for kicks.
Alloysius: Super Bowl Sunday by Oprah.
Rowena: Oh, nice.
Alloysius: I realize that podcast.
Rowena: The podcast. Yeah.
Alloysius: Podcast is really good.
Rowena: He’s got so much heart.
Alloysius: Yeah. It’s about life, you know, hearing from other people’s life hacks, how they stay on top of their games and how they take care of themselves. Like, you know, there’s a spiritual connotation to die. So I enjoy I enjoy listening to that.
Rowena: Nice. So now we’re going to switch over to some questions from our listeners. The first is from Caitlin Kraft. Which man from Woman at the Table? She asks, How do you proactively reach out to female smallholder farmers? What is your gender and inclusion? What is your gender strategy look like?
Alloysius: Yeah. So the way we reach women to men ways choose a workforce or religion network that can easily reach more women, but then also support crops that are being grown by more women. Right? So and then steadily go to locations that women are like, more like there are more women
Alloysius: Farmers. So for us, when we’re in only one region and working in cocoa, we are break down was about 26% or 27% women farmers when we started working with a lot of food crops like cereals and grains like sorghum, soybean and maize. And
Alloysius: Then when we expanded to the northern part of the country where there are a lot of women farmers growing more food crops, we we done a change to 54% because we’re, you know, we supporting a lot more crops that are grown by women
Rowena: That makes sense.
Alloysius: Land tenure system tend to favor men and tree crops also favor men. So when you support more food crops, then, you know, you know, you get to reach more women. So that’s what we did. We started also being intentional about the agent network that we recruit to make sure there are a lot more women as well, organizing women only workshops as well because it is mixed
Alloysius: Of the time we may show up early, but then when the men start arriving, they will move to the back and then remain silent. So if you want to open
Alloysius: Up, then you have to do more women workshops led by women. So those are some of the things that we’ve done. I would admit there’s a lot of room for improvement. We are not there yet and it’s even more important for us to reach a lot more women because a lot of the crops that we are supporting right now are food crops, and we just have to keep improving on our strategies to reach our, you know, our best customers that are women.
Rowena: Lovely kids. Caitlin has a second question. Caitlin Second question is how is artificial intelligence A.I. being used or how could it be used more effectively in your work?
Alloysius: It’s about like it is being used for intelligence gathering intelligence. One know the impact of your work and to reduce plan better to reduce costs and make impact. So for instance, we’re using AI to profile agribusinesses. So when agribusiness comes to us to demand to request for fertilizer and seed, we do like a score for them, like a FICO score for agribusinesses that then allows us to determine how much fertilizer to give them and then the payment terms to give them whatever you charge on 50% upfront and 50% in 2 to 4 weeks or 30% upfront. And then the 70% is six, 6 to 9, nine months. So AI is helping us on on in that regard. Route planning. So planning where to the US to take to deliver our products to the rural areas in order to reduce the cost of transportation delivery cattle. So we use AI to plan our delivery to make sure that we prioritize customers first come, first serve and not just like, you know, and taking out any human bias to improve customer loyalty. So when people know that like this has been detected by computer instead of humans, they trust that it is more fair and and there’s nobody like there’s less bias in it.
Alloysius: Yeah. And also your prediction, knowing where food is going to be right in the middle of the season and how much that food is going to cost and the quantity is going to [00:50:00] be available, allows us to determine how much investment to put in in each location. So then the application is limited, like is is a lot. But every day all these intelligence have to only work. When you collect good data and good data is collected by people and people are agreeing to digitize their processes. So that’s the first step. Or working with your field agents, explain to them why they have to digitize not as a target, but in like just as a byproduct of their work, doing their work and leveraging that digitized data to teach your AI and generate better intelligence to support your work. So that’s how we use it today. Of course, there’s room for improvement. And let me use a quick way to say that we are creating a CTO. So if you’re listening to this and you work
Alloysius: At anywhere in the world, you want
Rowena: Good to
Alloysius: Facts, you want to join us, CTO of SEO 44 people, please send me an email at Alloysius at Farmerline. Go.
Rowena: Awesome. Thank you, Alloysius. Last question from Strange Attractor on Twitter. Can farmers in North America benefit from your products and services? You know, for organic farming or for organic certification or other use cases.
Alloysius: Yeah. They can use our technology. We are not providing any form of financing and on the ground support in North America. But yeah, I would imagine that our technology would be helpful for digitizing farms, in profiling farmers, tracking purchase of fertilizers and seeds, tracking the harvesting of food and all that. Yeah. So we, we can definitely discuss that and explore synergies. We’ve not worked in North America yet. We’ve worked in in Peru, in Asia, in Africa mostly. But yeah, we are open to having conversations about North America.
Rowena: Thank you so much for your time, Alloysius, and for sharing so much wisdom that you’ve accumulated over the years. We really appreciate having you on the show.
Alloysius: Thanks. Thanks.