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­­­­How FoodPrint Lab seeks to digitalize Africa’s agricultural sector to gain more food sovereignty

Which problem is FoodPrint lab trying to tackle?

There are about 32 million small holders (farming to eat but have surplus to sell) or subsistence farmers (farming for survival) in Africa and they produce about 70% of the continent’s food supply. Their operations are largely analogue and non-digital, which comes with an array of challenges from credibility, reliability to lack of access to real-time market prices. African farmers are at the mercy of the price that is dictated to them by the buyer. (or Buyer’s market). How do these farmers tab into new markets and increase profit? Challenges and questions that Julian Kanjere is determined to tackle and turn into an opportunity.

“The fact that most of Africa’s farming operations function analogously limits their ability to access new markets and services. It also makes it almost impossible for buyers to source produce from outside their existing commercial market. These two core challenges motivated us to work towards finding a feasible solution.” (Julian Kanjere, founder of FoodPrint Labs)

Identifying these key problems led Kanjere to create a block-chain that enables farm-to-fork agri-platform for smallholder farmers, retailers and consumers called FoodPrint Labs. For this amazing work he was awarded one of the global winners of the Schmidt Futures Reimagine Challenge 2020. His vision for FoodPrint Labs is that his concept can work not only in SA South Africa, but across Africa. His idea truly has the potential to make a difference in farmers lives and their families lives and improve their economic status. The immediate benefit to society is undeniable, given concerns around food security.

FoodPrint Lab is a great example that mission and problem statements are not always immediately obvious, and that it requires perseverance to test ideas for solutions and conduct research. During this process other problems, other solutions or other unexpected learnings come up.

Why trying our different problem testing techniques and conducting research is key to success?

“It all started with a relatively vague dream of a digital platform that would provide farm-to-fork traceability. We needed a partner to test our ideas and conduct research, so we teamed up with OZCF (Oranjezicht City Farm) and some of their produce suppliers. When we tested our digital platform, which was still a web application at the time, we found that although conscious consumers were interested in where their produce comes from, there was not enough appetite to pay a premium to get this information.” Kanjere explains.

However, this wasn’t the only lesson Kanjere made at OZCF. There were a few more important takeaways from the research at OZCF, as he got to connect with many different farmers and was able to experience their challenges first hand. His time testing, investigating and researching turned out to be invaluable.

“One of the issues we observed was that farmers struggled with inventory, production and sales management. All too often there was no proper record or tracking systems of what they were producing and how much was going out within a certain time frame. Many farmers had no access to computers, but we noticed that many were using WhatsApp a lot. That’s when it dawned on me that a WhatsApp Chat Bot could be extremely useful here!” (Julian Kanjere, founder of FoodPrint Labs)

How FoodPrint aims to solve their problem statement

FoodPrint Lab has recently finalized their first WhatsApp Chat bot after strenuous months of development. “Currently, we are picking up conversations with small holder farmers and Agri-hubs and are running pilots. We made so much progress within the past two years, but testing our mission and problem statement isn’t over yet, but the learning never stops.

FoodPrint is on a mission to increase productivity and profitability for African farmers, but how one sells this opportunity and make it palatable to farmers, is a challenge that is currently being interrogated. FoodPrint Lab suggests that cutting out the middle man is indeed possible by presenting a digital concept that would allow buyers to know how much produce is available and then order directly from farmers, agri-hubs or agricultural cooperatives).

“Our conversations with farmers suggest that there would need to be an incentive to use the WhatsApp chat bot. We are currently looking at linking crop or flooding insurance to our service and are exploring the possibilities of including farm input suppliers and logistics. Ultimately, I ask myself: how do I make this make sense to a farmer?”

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