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Uka Eje: Linking thousands of farmers to finance, market opportunities

When Uka Eje, CEO, Thrive Agric graduated from Covenant University with a Biochemistry degree in 2012, he had another path set for himself, not in the laboratory titrating chemical samples, but on farmlands across Nigeria.

From working with 150 farmers in the beginning, Eje, through Thrive Agric as at last year had reached 35,000 farmers within three years, and in fact, told BusinessDay in an exclusive interview of an ambitious plan to reach 250,000 farmers this year.

The company has developed what it calls an Agriculture Operating System (AOS), a technology driven platform that is hosting a database on farmers; their individual, financial, and agricultural profiles, which aids decision making when trying to identify legitimate farmers, and their records of accomplishment. Currently, Eje says 121,000 farmers in 6 states; Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Jigawa,  Kebbi, and Plateau State have been captured in the system.

The company has also been able to raise about N2.5 billion since 2017, which has been used to support production by the 35,000 farmers reached so far. These farmers have been supported with a combination of access to input, access to markets, and of course, credit.

This investment in smallholder farmers has in turn translated into about 150,000 tons of maize, rice, soyabeans and sorghum, which are the major crops the company facilitates. Apart from crops, working with poultry farmers has yielded 3.7 million birds as at last year.

Growing up in Benue state, described as Nigeria’s Food Basket, Eje noticed that even in the midst of enormous agricultural activity, farmers were not getting the best value after toiling for months to produce crops.

There was an incident during the ‘Tomato-Ebola’ (Tuta Absoluta) crisis where Tomato was sold for as low as N500 (per basket) in Benue State, but going to Lagos, Eje noticed that tomato was sold at about N20,000 per basket. “It was really a shocker for me,” he said.

He could not reconcile N500 naira per basket in Benue to N20,000 for the same commodity in Lagos, a 3000 percent price difference. While this could be explained with principles of scarcity, demand and supply, and other factors that influence prices to skyrocket, for Eje, it simply did not make sense.

“I couldn’t logically reconcile how that made sense, especially when you notice that these farmers have the potential of scaling more and of doing more,” he said.

He noticed a broken farm-market linkage, where primary producers   had little or no knowledge of who was going to off take whatever commodities had been produced. In many cases, they only interacted with middlemen who determined the price of commodities for the farmers. “I felt it was unfair. I felt there was a lot going on that needed to be corrected,” said Eje.

Initially, Eje and his then co-founder decided to put these farmers in a cluster, and become the ‘middleman’, on what he described as “an empathetic level”. They moved farm produce for the farmers and gave them a percentage of whatever profit was made. This, he said made many of the farmers want to do business. Expectedly, it attracted a lot of interest from farmers, and got to a point where they could not buy all of the commodities.

“It was because our price was better than anywhere they could get it,” he said. At that point of being overwhelmed, it was then decided to also go into production. Teaming up with some of his former university friends, the production aspect started, but it was not in the mould of what is today known as crowdfunding. It was first from the empathy of the problems of the farmer in accessing market, and then it became an expansion into direct production by supporting farmers.

The group (yet to become a company at the time), started with about 150 farmers, expanding to 500 within that year and continued growing till date. In 2017, Thrive Agric was formally launched, both as a legal entity registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), and as an online facilitator of crowdfunding for agriculture.

Operating, even within just about three years, has not been without challenges, but according to Eje, the company draws strength from its resolve to ensure that it gives value to the farmers, especially in trying periods such as this.

Ambitions beyond crowdfunding

For Eje, while it appears Thrive Agric is known more as a crowdfunding company, with the smallholder farmers, the company is considered more than that. “With the farmers we work with, it is their stories and experiences of impact from working with us that is the real story of Thrive Agric,” he said.

As he illustrates, the company’s story is not for instance, entirely based on someone who gave one million naira and got X or Y percent after some months. While for the average investor, it is about putting money down for a fixed period and getting returns, but for farmers, the experience is different.

That experience as he says, is for a farmer cultivating as little as 0.2 hectares of land, but because of Thrive Agric, is now able to farm on one hectare and able to make three times the previous yield because of technology based advisory the company is providing.

For him, that experience is much more than returns on investments, as it is also about access to market, education and the financial literacy that happens for thousands of farmers.

Even as the crowdfunding and finance aspect of the company no doubt excites many people, one of the things that the company has been doing intentionally is moving away from crowdfunding to other alternative investments that would be a lot more beneficial for the smallholder farmers.

According to him, “Millions of farmers do not know that access to Capital from the government is possible and we depend on them for food. Why it is so strong for me, especially at this point is if we are talking a lot about solving food scarcity and farmers at this period don’t have access to easy Capital to finance their operations, then the reality is we are going to experience food scarcity.”

Thrive Agric, according to Eje, is in the process of positioning itself to get support from all major stakeholders support, to achieve the company’s goal of working with 250,000 Farmers this year. The reason for this according to him is because the cost of goods will increase (in view of current economic challenges), and before we think of exporting outside the country, we need to be able to satisfy internal consumption to a good extent.

Through its Agriculture Operating System (AOS), Thrive Agric is creating a new experience in agricultural finance, where whoever is the financier has visibility of the operation. This starts by ensuring the onboarding process is intact and covering information regarding farmer location, mapping their land, and all the little details that helps to even know who is the legitimate farmer.

According to him, there is often no one watching after loans are given to farmers to determine if it actually gets to the farmers, and there is no one watching what the farmers are doing. This, he says is important not just for financial records, but also that when disbursements actually occur, the same system can be used to monitor performance and progress of farmers. When there are disease outbreaks, those can be easily controlled as early alerts would have been raised.

From 150 to 35,000 farmers and a new target of 250,000 farmers, Uka Eje is connecting farmers to finance, market, and knowledge that help them improve their productivity, even beyond their own imagination.

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