Partnerships for impact

Alloysius Attah and Emmanuel O. Addai co-founded Farmerline

Ghanaian firm Farmerline helps to empower farmers

When Alloysius Attah started college, a career in agriculture was something he wanted to avoid.

Born on a farm where his family lived in Ghana, he watched his aunt struggle to get the tools she needed to grow food on two acres.

“Most farmers actually don’t want their kids to end up in farming or agriculture,” he said in a presentation to MEDA staff. “I was one of those kids. I was studying very hard to get far away from agriculture.”

Thirteen years later, Farmerline, the agtech firm he co-founded, has made a major difference in the lives of farmers in Ghana and around the world.

The company’s software platform has been used to help one million farmers in 26 countries receive the digital tools they need to improve their businesses.

Attah credits former US President Barack Obama with launching his entrepreneurial journey. In 2009, Obama visited Ghana and challenged young Africans to create change from the bottom up. That year, Attah started college, the first member of his family to do so. He also bought his first laptop computer using his student loan. He started to learn computer coding and met Emmanuel O. Addai, his Farmerline co-founder.

Attah saw entrepreneurship as a means of survival. His teacher father, who never earned more than $200 a month, borrowed money to send him to college. “I had to work extra in order to keep up.”

Attah was also inspired by two Kenyan tech innovations: M-Pesa, a mobile phone based money transfer service, and Ushahidi, a software platform allows local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the Internet. Farmerline emerged when Attah and Addai were challenged at a 2013 tech boot camp to come up with solutions that they cared about. They launched the company with $600 and a sense of mission: to “get farmers all they need to produce and sell more food.”

Their initial plan was to help farmers access information. They would empower people in rural areas where the government agriculture extension agents lacked the funding or equipment to visit. Mobile phones were becoming widely used, so they built a simple platform to send SMS (text) messages to farmers.

When they went to the field to meet farmers and extension officers, they were told the system would not work. “People believe, and take action, when they are talking to someone,” Attah said.

“That was the first lesson in building anything, in building any form of intervention,” he said. “Speak to the people that you are trying to serve. Pay attention and learn.”

When Farmerline’s first product failed, Attah and Addai went back to work. They realized the need to replicate the in-person experience that a farmer gets talking to an extension officer, through the mobile phone. “That’s when the Farmerline platform was born, using voice messaging, basically recording the message, the conversation that a farmer would have with an extension officer, and sending it out to farmers.”

MEDA was the firm’s first partner in northern Ghana. Attah met MEDA staffer Catherine Sobrevaga, who was then overseeing a project in Ghana, at a workshop. That interaction led to MEDA giving Farmerline a chance, then credibility with others.

“This was very monumental for us,” he said. “Before we met MEDA, no one was taking us seriously.”

“When we started this project with MEDA, many other partners followed.”

Their first project was provid- ing a help line and messaging service for 20,000 women farmers in northern Ghana. The messages included information about best farming practices, market prices and weather forecasts.

The helpline also provided additional support and answered farmer inquiries. The partnership with MEDA not only opened doors. It also helped a group of engineers learn how to build content for farmers, he said.

Farmerline now provides four major services:

  • Agro-input financing and distri- bution with flexible payment plans,
  • Sending weather voice messages to each farmer it serves with crop inputs,
  • In-person farmer education through workshops
  • And connecting farmers to local and global markets.

A key part of Farmerline’s work is done through partnerships. They initially went to farmers themselves. As the pandemic restricted mobility, they learned the importance of having trusted partners on the ground. Having partners who speak the same language and come from the same tribe as the farmers they are serving became essential.

Community partners allowed Farmerline to multiply the number of farmers it is working with directly from 9,000 in 2019 to 77,000 in 2021. There are 58 languages in Ghana. Working with people from those communities and language groups has been critical to Farmerline’s growth.

The company has warehouses in four areas, works with nine companies to deliver goods, and partners with 12 input suppliers.
Farmerline currently works in 80 percent of Ghana. It has plans to expand to the rest of the nation, except the capital region, this year.

Its software platform is now used by more than 80 corporate and development agency partners. These include the Mastercard Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foun- dation, as well as MEDA and food processors such as Hershey. Three of the firm’s top per- forming employees are former MEDA staff, he said.

In 2021, 54 percent of the farmers the company served were women. Its efforts increased farmer income by 26 per cent and created more than 200 jobs. Goals for 2022 include reaching 400,000 farmers across Ghana, increasing full-time staff to 140 from 80 previously, and employing 400 contract staff.

Farmers’ needs are clear. In a recent Linked In post, Attah noted that over 16,000 agribusinesses closed down in Ghana since May 2020. Factors contributing to the closures included decreases in input supply and financing. Three things have been central to Farmerline’s work, he said: Growing with mission-aligned partners, being cost-effective and sustainable at all times, and continuing rigorous impact measurement. Those concepts will guide the firm as it goes forward.

“We really want to work with partners to reduce costs for farmers.”

— Farmerline CEO Alloysius Attah

“When there’s any global change, be it COVID or Ukraine fighting Russia, farmers really suffer as food systems get affected.”
He sees building sustainable systems as key to ensuring that cocoa farmers earn a fair income, for example. Currently those farmers earn only two percent of the industry’s $100 billion in revenue, he said.

Attah hopes to reach two million farmers within five years. Farmerline will do this not just by providing information, but also enabling access to quality seeds and fertilizer. “We really want to work with partners to reduce costs for farmers.”

Attah has received numerous awards for his work, including CBNC Africa’s Young Business Leader Award in 2017. He also became a laureate of the King Baudoin (former King of Belgium) African Development Prize in 2017. Attah is also one of the 2021 class of innovators, visionaries, scientists, policymakers, and entrepreneurs who are part of the Bloomberg New Economy Catalysts.

Farmerline won the FT/IFC Transformational Business Award for Achievement in Sustainable Agriculture in 2016.
In 2019, Time magazine recognized Farmerline’s software platform as one of the best 100 inventions of the year. The New York Times honored Farmerline as one of five companies using technology to solve global problems. .

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