According to the latest 2017 State of Food and Agriculture report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the key to achieving the 2010 Agenda for Sustainable Development is transforming rural communities and promoting agriculture. Currently, smallholder food producers have little or no access to profitable markets and value chains, which are dominated by large producers and retailers. However, in a number of countries across the African continent, agriculture makes more than 50% of its labor force.
AgroCenta set out to tackle two critical problems within the value chain. For one, the lack of an access to a market for smallholder farmers in the rural areas, which subjected them to activities of exploitative buying from middlemen. Secondly, the lack of a coordinated truck delivery system to cart their commodities from farms to markets to sell. Just as uber connects passengers to drivers across the world, AgroCenta’s idea is to solve these age-old problems by introducing an online sales platform that connects smallholder farmers directly to an online market, which has wider geographic size, to sell their commodities. My recent conversation with Michael Ocansey - who is currently dabbling in a $2.4 trillion industry - uncovers his entrepreneurial journey.
What’s your life philosophy?
One of the narratives about the African continent is that it’s perfectly okay for a product or service to be inferior. My life philosophy is to ensure that the narrative spoken about Africa is changed. To accomplish this, I strive to excel at everything my hands' touch, to promote excellence, and to do away with mediocrity.
What’s something you do every day that is non-negotiable for you?
Writing code is definitely non-negotiable because I am a software engineer by profession. My primary responsibility as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of AgroCenta is to make sure our products are technologically sound. We have a 2-year roadmap of products we have to build, however, the more we learn about our space, the more we fine-tune these products. For example, we observed a lack of financial support for farmers. So we now cultivate partnerships with financial organizations to meet the needs of the farmers we work with.
What are the formative ingredients in your childhood that came to create your perspective?
*Sigh* Throughout my childhood, I observed that people around me were settling for less. People who came from poverty-stricken households would often leave their burden to God and wait for a miracle. They sought religion for mediocrity. So when I started learning software development, I could now compare products built in other places to products in my locality. This exposure, in turn, shaped my decision to always demand excellence.
What do you consider to be one of the greatest challenges and setbacks for developing businesses in Africa?
The greatest challenges will be the legislature and going through public offices. For example, working with one of our big clients came with certain requirements such as certifications from public organizations. Most of the public workers proceeded to ask for money to expedite the process yet failed to get the work done. However, from a startup point of view, it's definitely financing. Most banks across the continent are not willing to give a startup any capital. We were fortunate to be backed by an investor who was following our journey on LinkedIn. As a matter of fact, all of our investments since the first have come from LinkedIn too. That being said, some startups simply fail to raise any funding because they are just not ready to receive investment. Investors are looking for someone who does proper bookkeeping, documentation and is efficient.
When you think about how you built your company, how much do you think was your skills, intelligence, and talent and how much do you think was just luck?
1% was luck -- that was the investment. Everything else was from our experience in other fields. Agrocenta is my fourth startup. For my Co-founder Francis Obirikorang, it is his second. We were both working on a startup called Swappaholics Holdings before Agrocenta started. We then had the opportunity to participate in an accelerator in Dubai for a year and learned how to really run a business. This experience is what revealed the mistakes we initially made and also confirmed the importance of having a Co-founder. One thing I will add is investors find it riskier to back a solo entrepreneur.
If someone is trying to start a business and has no money or no connections - just an idea - what is the one thing they need to have or focus on?
I believe there is always someone with the money looking for great ideas to invest in. As an aspiring entrepreneur, what you should focus on is perfectly articulating what you want to do and how it can make money. Most developers, especially, have a gut feeling to build without thinking of how profitable the product is. At AgroCenta, we used the business model canvas. This canvas breaks the business down into 9 segments and helps you visualize how you are going to make money and which component will suck out a lot of money. Going through the canvas also helps you figure out whether to go through the process phase or to pivot.
There are a tremendous number of opportunities on the African continent. How do you stay focused on your journey?
I’ve been burned in the past. The reason my other startups didn't work out was that I was stretched from doing too many things. Let’s take Facebook, for example. They were really focused on building their core product before their acquisitions. Airbnb, Uber, and Apple all focused on one product too. So why did I, one man, feel the need to focus on too many products at the same time? Today, our roadmap at AgroCenta helps us stay in check. It helps us realize that if competitors are doing something different, we do not necessarily have to chase them. Rather, it’s important to fully comprehend where we want to take the company and strictly focus on that game plan.
Bonus Impromptu Follow Up Question:
What if competitors end up taking part your market share then?
The agricultural space is a big market. Before we started, there were quite a few agricultural startups doing e-commerce. We differentiated ourselves by focusing on big organizations demanding a lot of commodities at the time. From our experience, organizations still have a lot of demand to be met so we are not too worried if a competitor comes into our space. Also, it’s more important for us to pivot and test things based on our vision, not based on what a competitor dictates. It’s also more important to focus on providing value for our target market. We aim to set the pace based on our commitment to the quality of our product and designing to fit the needs of our end user.