Next-generation technology: unlocking nutritious food production in Africa and Asia

With over 500 million undernourished people, and nine out of ten of the world’s stunted and wasted children, malnutrition and hunger continue to plague African and Asian populations. But as poor access to nutritionally-rich and affordable diets continues to take its toll on these continents, pioneering entrepreneurs and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are stepping up to the challenge.

The African and Asian finalists of this year’s Global SUN Pitch Competition, for example, demonstrate the role of novel food production practices, digital platforms and next generation technologies in overcoming nutrition insecurity. With innovative business models – spanning high-value commodities and modern production processes to market access and traceability solutions that ensure quality, fresh produce reaches local customers – technology is assisting SMEs in streamlining the entire value chain, and thereby increasing access to nutritious food.

Investing in local

Nigerian entrepreneur Emeka Nwachinemere had a painful experience when he first ventured into farming in 2014. Despite trying out various agri-ventures, his farm recorded poor yields due to a lack of access to inputs and finance. This sparked the idea for e-Farms, a fintech crowdsourcing company that raises local agri-investment to support farmers with access to high-quality inputs. “I realised that 64 million smallholder farmers experience the same problem I had when I started farming. Banking institutions are not keen on investing in agriculture. As a result, over 70% of smallholder farmers in Nigeria cannot access quality inputs. Leveraging finance is key so that farmers can produce highly nutritious foods,” emphasises Emeka.

Since launching in November 2017, the peer-to-peer investment platform has managed to connect over 3,000 smallholder farmers working in nine agricultural value chains including fish, maize, pepper, rice and soya to 700 investors and raised over US$500,000 in farm investments. This has enabled farmers to diversify crop production and increase their incomes.

To share knowledge and encourage technology uptake among farmers, Usomi runs training sessions led by agronomists.

In Kenya, Usomi Limited aims to support poultry and grain farmers to increase local productivity, ensure greater market access, and enhance smallholder incomes and nutritional outcomes. The enterprise, which was set-up by Fidalis Mujibi in 2013, has embraced various digital platforms to bridge the gap in production and market access. The company’s Lulu platform, for example, aggregates produce from different farmers and places it onto a digital marketplace where a bidding process takes place, allowing farmers to earn competitive market rates. To share knowledge and best practices, Usomi also runs training sessions led by agronomists, and peer-to-peer training. “We work with smallholders to maximise technology uptake. The Lulu digital platform allows farmers to purchase produce at the click of a button and receive alerts on diseases and pests in the production of locally-produced nutritional foods,” states Fidalis.

Tracing farm-to-fork

In Bangladesh, the average rate of daily milk consumption is 33 ml – significantly lower than the global average of 250 ml. This low intake is attributed to a 46% supply deficit. In addition, 55% of the population does not trust the quality of local milk. To help address milk safety and, in turn, the country’s nutritional deficiencies, Khamar-e has embraced digital technology.

Through online apps ‘Khamar-e Connect’ and ‘Khamar-e Bazaar’, the agri-tech SME, which was established by four engineers in 2019, champions data-driven farming to ensure that: farmers are able to digitally monitor their animals’ progress, health and output; collectors are able to handle milk hygienically; and customers receive high-quality products. The apps also offer traceability, enabling any quality problem to be tracked back to an individual farmer, thus guaranteeing transparency across the chain. In addition to increasing local production and the nutritional value of dairy products, the apps are also encouraging more people to get into dairy farming, explains Diptha Saha, a director at the company.

As food moves from farm to consumer, produce quality can become compromised due to factors including mishandling, poor packaging and counterfeiting. To address this biting challenge, Food Trax, a Pakistani SME has adopted emerging technologies such as Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), scanners, cameras, cloud platforms, temperature loggers and mobile computing to track and trace food product ingredients. The company’s traceability application, Meat Trax, for example, can monitor the integrity and quality of the production process of products like meat. An RFID tag on each animal enables the app to provide information on the owners, health, growth, and immunisation records of the animals, as well as slaughter house operations. This has helped to tame food fraud, boosted food safety and enhanced security in the supply chain. “In Pakistan, 8 out of 10 children do not eat the right type and quantity of food. The Food Trax App provides the ability to authenticate food products so that food buyers can feel powered to track, trace and verify food products,” states Rizwan Buttar, Chief Innovation Officer at Food Trax.Online access to nutritionAs the burgeoning middle and working class in Nigeria has become more conscious of what they eat, there has been a growing appetite for healthy food products. This trend has given rise to the formation of nutritious snacks and other food business start-ups. Thle.Mealimeter is one such enterprise, which has sought to overcome the issue of scale by identifying nutrition-focused small businesses and chefs, and supplying them with kitchen facilities that meet national food safety standards. The company then connects these businesses with customers through its mobile marketplace app and through the installation of vending machines within offices, schools and hospitals. This creates a market for the businesses, whilst ensuring that customers can easily access nutritious meals. “Users only need a mobile phone or a debit card to access healthy products in 30 seconds; no delays, no delivery costs,” enthuses Adekunle Jinadu, a co-founder of the company.

Park&Pick is an online grocery store that provides home delivery services of fresh produce in Rwanda.

Leveraging the meteoric rise of fresh food e-commerce platforms, and high internet penetration in East Africa, Segond Fidens started Park&Pick, an online grocery store providing home delivery services in Rwanda. Partnering with farmers and vendors, the company is able to deliver fresh produce to city dwellers in Kigali, and offers weekly meal plans with recipes for nutritious and affordable food choices. Park&Pick also analyses consumer data from its online platform to match farmer production capacity and quality to market needs. This enables the company to guarantee its 40 farmers with a ready market if they meet certain quality standards, which include the judicious use of chemicals, and handling, storage and packaging methods which foster food safety. In addition to boosting farmers’ incomes, and curbing food losses, connecting farmers to ready markets guarantees consumers with a consistent supply of quality produce at a constant price.

The virtual competition

Continuing the trend of leveraging technologies, the live, virtual final of the Global 2020 SUN Pitch Competition took place on Thursday 30th, July. The event video can now be watched on demand here.

Speaking on the importance of the SUN Business Network’s competition, Matt Kovac, Executive Director of Food Industry Asia (FIA), a supporting partner, says: “SMEs are critical not just to keep food systems moving but in coming up with the new ideas needed to reach consumers with affordable nutritious foods. FIA is delighted to support the SUN Business Network’s 2020 SUN Pitch Competition as we believe increasing investments and business partnerships with the SME sector will unlock and scale the food system innovations SMEs can bring to the table.”

Bob Koigi

Bob is editor at and Africa Business Communities, and has won multiple awards for his coverage of agriculture, business, the environment and rural development, including Journalist of the Year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Bob produced this article in collaboration with WRENmedia in the UK, which is supporting the SUN Pitch Competition communications.