The need for both agricultural and financial technology to track, monitor and provide statistical data to the entire agri-value chain, from farm to fork, is one that has long called for a response.

Enter eSusFarm®, the agri-fintech solution that collects real-time food production data from smallholder and subsistence producers to provide entire agricultural industry with robust data on the productivity, smallholder market and credit access, and the overall efficiency of the agri-value chain.

Says Watson Vuyo Matsa, Chief Visionary behind eSusFarm: “Our target market is specifically the resource-poor smallholders and subsistence producers in rural areas. Incredibly, this sector comprises a massive five million smallholder and subsistence farmers in South Africa plus 100 thousand in the Kingdom of Eswatini.

“Ultimately, we aim to monitor and commercialise 20 million smallholder and subsistence farmers in Southern Africa by 2025.”

The importance of this initiative in food security and sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa and beyond cannot be overstated, Matsa says, and highlights the equal value of having a bank that understands the sector intimately as a partner.

“Without a partner bank, the information that eSusFarm® collects and holds on behalf of smallholder farmers cannot be monetised. Grobank understands the importance of monetisation to create financial inclusion, increase rural agricultural outputs, and improve the livelihoods of the rural population.”

Matsa notes that banks and development finance firms “are subject to moral hazards”.

“A moral hazard occurs when debt or grant is issued and the providers do not have sufficient information about the enterprise. This makes decisions difficult, as accurate information is a vital aspect of financial markets and creating evidence-based economic policies.

Bennie van Rooy, CEO of Grobank, notes that the bank’s unique partnership philosophy  ensures an intimate understanding of the requirements and expected outcomes required by clients such as eSusFarm.

“eSusFarm provides a novel Ongoing Risk Management tool that allows financial institutions to monitor the farmer throughout the production cycle, creating trust between the financial provider and the smallholder farmer.

“The data provided by eSusFarm means Grobank is able to track all aspects of the successes and potential risks highlighted by the software, says Van Rooy.

“With financial inclusion being one of the pillars of Grobank’s partnership strategy, we look forward to the long-term success not only of our client, but their clients and the millions who will benefit from an agricultural sector having access to data that can predict and monitor best practise under all conditions.”

2020 World Bank Top Innovator award

Recently selected as the 2020 World Bank Top Innovator and honoured as the most Innovative Locally Sustainable Business Model in SADC, Matsa says coming out tops against over 120 innovations from over 33 countries in the world shows eSusFarm is an innovation that not only provides data, but “prioritises empowerment of rural populations, which up until now has been left-out of the development prism”.

“This achievement is not just a massive win for us as innovators, but for the entire country and the Southern Africa and Africa region.

“It says that South Africa has found a model for empowering smallholder and subsistence farmers, a solution to an issue that has rattled the minds of policymakers since the advent of democracy in South Africa and Africa in general.”

Most importantly, he adds, it also highlights that Africa has found a solution that brings together all value chain actors to help the small operations using one view of the producer.

“The award shows that, as Africans, we are capable of developing home-grown solutions to solve the problems facing smallholder and subsistence farmers in our own region, while fortifying food security and build strong and sustainable livelihoods. Our vision of ensuring the effective and efficient commercialisation of 100 million small farmers in Africa by 2030 is doable and sustainable.”

Conceived in 2011 by then-Rhodes University students and founders Dr Thula Sizwe Dlamini and Watson Vuyo Matsa, the eSusFarm data collection process starts with on-boarding farmers into the platform and enabling access to the platform using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) codes.

“By dialling a USSD string, the farmer is able to register and use the platform free of charge, says Matsa. “Once the farmer is on the platform, we use SMSes to inform the farmer what needs to be done with regard to their planting and crops.

“For example, to avoid delays at start of ploughing season, farmers are guided via SMS to take soil samples; to make early tractor bookings; and to order their seasonal requirements using USSD strings.”

Hand-held solutions for sustainable farming

Again, dialling a USSD string enables the farmer to upload data on planting dates, area planted, quantity planted, name of crop, name of cultivars, fertilisation, germination count, pests/weeds presence, health of plantings, and other variables.

“eSusFarm uses Microsoft Azure to deploy the USSD codes on mobile feature phones, the responses are gathered and deployed to the cloud for further analytical processing,” Matsa notes, adding that this allows eSusFarm to create a comprehensive dataset or Data Lake, from which farmers can buy inputs, source markets, and pool produce to supply larger customers on the platform.

“This ability to virtually pool produce and supply large contracts is probably the biggest contribution to the development of smallholders. eSusFarm is the first company in SADC to monitor both quality and quantity of produce in the smallholder sector.”

Along with the analytics that can be performed on data, bridging the communication gap between the smallholder farmer and value chain players such as marketers, agri-processors, knowledge intermediaries, financial providers and inputs vendors is one of the most appealing features, says Van Rooy.

“This kind of data is what can ensure the success of an entire value chain,” he asserts. “In partnering with eSusFarm, we are able to combine our shared values and specific skills across the eco-system that includes suppliers, buyers, insurers, logistics and even universities and research firms.”

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