How this SA agri-tech startup sprang from a discussion with Nando’s

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Not many African tech startups are born based on conversations with the company behind global flame-grilled chicken restaurants, but South African agri-tech startup GreenFingers Mobile was.

Back in 2013, Maximilian Pichulik and Tanner Methvin were having discussions with international food corporation Nando’s​​, which wanted to increase the number of smallholder farmers in its supply chain but lacked confidence in the tools used by aggregators or the agricultural SMEs that manage small farmer networks.

“Nando’s asked if a digital solution could be provided to replace the traditional pen and paper management systems. GreenFingers Mobile was built and Nando’s paid for our first two clients to be brought onto the system,” chief executive officer (CEO) Natalie Miller told Disrupt Africa.

GreenFingers Mobile is a digital solution that allows organisations that work with smallholder farmers to meet the criteria of food corporations like Nando’s, provide a transparent value chain, and meet ethical standards for different stakeholders, enabling more subsistence farmers to earn an income for the first time. 

Its system replaces traditional pen and paper farmer management systems and enables farmers to access markets and finance.

“These farmers have their profiles, baseline data and technical assistance, along with all commercial exchanges recorded. The transactional data allows the building of creditworthiness and thus financial products to be customised to meet their realities on the ground for inputs and basic needs,” Miller said.

Unlike many agri-tech solutions, the GreenFingers Mobile solution is not aimed at the individual farmer. Agri-SMEs, like agribusinesses, aggregators and outgrower schemes, are the end users. Their field extension officers, who work with anywhere from 50 to 200 farmers or more, input all the data in the app for the farmer.

“They have always done this manually through paper and pen, you can imagine the nightmare of this when field extension officers are scattered hundreds of kilometres apart around the country and getting information back to the head office. We digitised this process for them,” said Miller.

Large buyers, such as corporation like Nando’s and chain supermarkets, do not work with individual small farmers, they work through the agri-businesses that GreenFingers Mobile targets.

“They will not contract agri-businesses without a transparent digital system with real-time data. Farmers also for the first time have their creditworthiness built through recorded commercial transactions. Agri-businesses can easily monitor and report to all stakeholders their activities and the change of livelihood of the farmers through the baseline and household data that field collection officers collect and store on the app,” Miller said.

The startup bucks the trend of increasingly high tech solutions in the agricultural space, instead focusing on simpler technology.

“The flashy new apps on smartphones that companies are building to be used by small farmers are great, however what is the uptake and scalability? From our experience, rural small farmers most of the time do not have smartphones and do not have data,” said Miller.

The simpler approach has certainly been impactful. GreenFingers Mobile claims to have positively impacted 50,000 lives since its launch, and has 8,700 registered across Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It has processed nearly 60,000 commercial transactions, and recorded over 12,500 farmer trainings.

Earlier this week, it launched an enhanced version of its farmer management system.

“The launch of this full SaaS platform this week is crucial, as GreenFingers Mobile was really an MVP and not a full SaaS platform, and thus not scalable. The onboarding of new clients was both costly and timely,” Miller said.

“We had to put a pause on bringing on new clients since we began the re-development process. Our new platform will not only mean super quick onboarding but that we are able to decrease pricing and lower the barrier to entry for agri-businesses while still offering customisations that our clients require.”

The startup is speaking with clients in South Africa, Kenya and Zambia about further expansion, and also has access to a reseller network. Already revenue positive from setup costs and licence fees, it has raised two rounds of seed funding from The Hivos Food & Lifestyle Fund in the Netherlands.

“We also before end of the year are launching a new partnership to reduce greenhouse gases, a reforestation project using smallholder farmers. A new client in Zimbabwe approached us to customise our system to create a digital solution to tracking and measuring their reforestation project,” Miller said.

“Over a 12-month period, GreenFingers Mobile will enable our client to monitor and record the distribution of more than one million trees to 12,000 farmers, fighting deforestation, contributing to carbon emission reduction and improving food security.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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