Cut off from their customers during the lockdown, small-holder farmers were struggling. Restaurants and food vendors were not allowed to operate under the hard lockdown, and these farmers lost their usual customers.

 That’s when tech entrepreneur Linah Maphanga stepped in. Maphanga is the founder of Farmers Assistant, a technology company that helps small-holder farmers connect to the whole agricultural value chain. During the lockdown, they were able to help farmers on their database find new customers.

“We were in a position where we could connect them to the market, so we started connecting them with NGOs that were distributing food parcels around South Africa,” says Maphanga. “We were also connecting them with delivery companies that are doing grocery deliveries to households so that people could buy fresh produce directly from the farmers on the platform.”

Using technology to access new customers

Farmers Assistant also trained small-holder farmers on how to package and extend the shelf life of fresh produce. Farmers also learned more about pricing in this new online market and how to negotiate with market agents that they were dealing directly with.

“Instead of going directly to the customers, we started working with stakeholders within the food distribution value chain that are selling fresh produce, through online delivery platforms,” adds Maphanga.

The farmers also used channels like WhatsApp to access customers who are not comfortable with using e-commerce. While at times communities confused the Farmers Assistant deliveries for charity food parcels during lockdown, after some explaining Maphanga and her team continued to deliver to new paying customers.

During lockdown, global food stocks were high, but local food producers were cut off due to trade restrictions, according to the Covid-19 Food Trade Policy Tracker by the International Food Policy Research Institute on. Even as food prices rose, small-holder farmers lost income.

 Farmers Assistant Covid-19 lockdown

Farmers Assistant founder Linah Maphanga (Supplied)

Access to funding

Farmers Assistant also connected farmers with the other-side of the value chain, funders and investors. The app helps farmers apply for funding to keep their businesses afloat. It also offers farmers the option of renting equipment.

Maphanga’s drive to help small-holder farmers stems from her childhood. The 28-year-old grew up on her parents farm in Mpumalanga. Her parents grew sorghum, avocados and maize on the four-hectare farm, and kept livestock like cows and goats.

“After harvest, we would go out to try and sell but then I realised that when they wanted to expand their farm, they couldn’t because they didn’t have the correct documents. They were not compliant, they were just farming informally,” she recalls. “The business was not registered, it didn’t have a business banking account or a business plan, so it was impossible for them to get financing.”

“That’s where I saw that the reason why small holder farmers are not accessing finance is because they don’t have all the documents that are needed. They can’t afford an accountant because it is just expensive for them at the level they are farming at,” says Maphanga, who now lives in Pretoria.

She started helping her parents and soon other farmers in her community sought her out. So the University of the Witwatersrand graduate created an easy-to-use app. Farmers upload their information to build a business profile that allows them to access finance. The company also sends agents to farmers to help them.

Fighting food insecurity

Maphanga launched the app in 2018 and today it has more than 4,500 users. They’ve also been able to reach 300,000 small-scale farmers around southern Africa, with links as far afield as Kenya and Nigeria. Still, it was during the Covid-19 pandemic that the Farmers Assistant app’s ability to fight food insecurity and hunger really came to the fore.

In May, the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom recognised the work Maphanga and her team do to fight the effects of Covid-19. As part of the Academy’s Project CARE (Covid Africa Rapid Entrepreneurs) initiative, Farm Assistant received a £5,000 grant to help scale the project and help more farmers.

Beyond Covid-19, Maphanga hopes that more young people will take up farming, and learning how the agricultural industry works. — Health-e News