A technology company that ventured into agriculture — learning on the job
AgroCenta is at its core a technology company empowering smallholder farmers through technology and innovations. It is normal practice for every company to do its due diligence before venturing into unfamiliar territory. We did. A lot — but as it mostly turns out, there are those tiny things we see happen so often in our day-to-day life we take for granted and make generalised assumptions. For instance, we see so many illiterate taxi drivers daily we ‘loosely assume’ all taxi drivers are either illiterate or semi-literate. We have learned a lot of lessons on the job. Some we learned early enough to straighten us up.
Are we measuring in sacks or metric tons?
This is one of the common sense assumptions we made because — well, we have common sense. Before venturing into this we always saw commodities packed up in sacks so logically we assumed it safe to talk in ‘sack’ terms. In our interaction with the farmers we kept saying sacks and no one had a problem so sacks it was. The first day we got to sit with a client at the negotiating table we learnt they don’t speak sacks but metric tons. We started perfecting our metric tons to sacks conversions immediately we walked out of that meeting.
Re-Bagging is a full time job
One will assume all we had to do was pick up the sacks full of maize from whoever we were buying them from. Well, Uncle Ben will do that for you if you’re buying his rice from the (super)market not here in the hinterlands of Northern Ghana. The commodities come in sacks that are not ‘client worthy’ so re-bagging into our branded sacks needs to be done. It is actually someone’s full time job to re-bag and weigh each sack. A cost element we learned on the job but learnt early enough to factor into our pricing model.
Professional sack sealers
Just like re-bagging, sewing up each sack is also someone’s full time job once weighing of the sack is done. If you want this to move faster you can provide your own threads and sack sewing machines — which we did. This way there will be no excuses for any delays with sewing. This is another cost element but mostly ties in with the re-bagging process.
The loading boys
The commodities have been re-bagged and sealed, ready to be shipped to our client but there’s one more group of people who need to do their job. The commodities need to get off the ground and on to the truck. Say hello to the loading boys — and no, they don’t work with/for the driver. They need to be hired separately and charge per sack they load on to the truck.
This is mandatory tax that needs to be paid to the district assembly for any commodities in transit. Usually charged per sack, this is paid in the town where the truck takes off from.
Fu*k the cheque. Give me cash
We once jokingly asked a truck driver, “Boss you dey take cheque?” (That’s Pidgin English for boss do you accept cheques). Hahaha was his response. That is mostly the response you will get from those we deal with in this value chain. You cannot pay the loading boys with cheques. Neither the re-baggers nor sack sealers. The farmer who makes quite a good sum of money has no bank account so cash it is (better still Mobile Money. AgroPay at best). The municipal assembly is in the best position to accept cheques but even they insist on paying council tickets by cash. This is bad for us especially since we have to stay accountable to our investors but hey — that’s just how it is.
The keyboard starts where the paper ends
Being a technology company dealing with a lot of low tech people, we developed a very low tech solution that is super easy to use but we soon realized, low tech as our solution may be, it still couldn’t beat pen and paper. Internally we have a solid app we use to manage every aspect of the business. This automation makes us move fast but our agents moved faster with pen and paper so, pen and paper it had to be. We moved some of their tasks solely to paper forms and found professional data entry guys to take over the entering of data. Nothing lost.
Resourcing the farming community
At the end of the day it’s our brand that suffers if we fail to deliver on time. Soon we realized the communities we worked in were highly under resourced. We had to buy scales, sack sealing machines and a few other things to enable the farmers measure accurately and bag much faster. This was for our own good.
If a feature must go — let it go
After three months being fully operational we learned what worked and what was failing. Our agents were initially in charge of getting commodity stock levels from the farmers. This helped us know how much of each commodity we could supply. This was tedious and got inaccurate with time since a farmer could sell his commodities to another buyer without telling us. We had to stop doing this. Meanwhile much time had gone into building this stock taking feature into our agents app. Well, we found a better approach to taking stock and had to retire this feature regardless of how much time had been invested. We killed AgroDeals.
The deeper we go into this, the more lessons we learn. Not for a moment have we regretted venturing into the agriculture space as a tech company.