PaygOps for Agritech: How IT Solutions are Helping Farmers Build More Pathways to Prosperity
A CONVERSATION WITH ONE ACRE FUND
78% of those experiencing poverty rely heavily on agriculture-related activities to make a living. Sadly, most of them cannot cover their own basic needs and those of their families. (World Bank et al.)
Since 2006, One Acre Fund has been committed to changing this reality, impacting the lives of close to 1.5 million farmers across Africa, not only by providing them with accessible high-quality agricultural inputs, but by showing them the way to prosperity through a multidimensional programme. However, the non-profit social enterprise was lacking the right IT infrastructure and, therefore, could only serve farmers once or twice a year, depending on seasonality, and with limited payment options, which was holding back the full potential of the programme.
And that’s how PaygOps came into the picture to support the largest network of smallholder farmers in Africa. The result is a groundbreaking combination in the East African agricultural sector that is allowing small-scale farmers to buy farming inputs any time of the year, have them quickly delivered to their doorstep, and pay with multiple financing options, enhancing radically the farmers’ experience in accessing life-changing products and services.
As part of Episode 1 of the PaygOps X One Acre Fund Series, we sat down with Clara Ruiz Linaje (Innovation Consultant), Patrick Bell (Chief Innovation Officer), Dennis Tirop (Performance Management & Field Tech Specialist), Havillah Kutwa (Logistics Specialist) and Ray Ease (Regional Manager of One Acre Fund’s last-mile distribution network), from the One Acre Fund Programme in Kenya, to discuss their organisation’s unique approach to AgriTech financing and distribution, and how PaygOps is coming into the mix to streamline their processes and provide farmers with more product offerings, financial possibilities, a smooth customer experience and, down the road, more prosperity.
In a nutshell, what’s One Acre Fund’s mission?
Clara R: The mission of One Acre Fund is to help farmers get food security and find pathways to prosperity, so it’s really helping farmers have control over their own lives.
Patrick B: Indeed. We work with smallholder farmers, and the whole idea is to increase food security and, then, go beyond that. We loosely define it as providing pathways to prosperity, so that differs for every single farmer. So, maybe their goal is to own a larger house, or a more secure house, or send their kids to school. We work with them to find a way to do that through starting a business, maybe growing a commercially oriented crop or something like that.
Ray E: The way we come in is basically to support smallholder farmers by supplying them with the financing and the tools they need to grow their way out of poverty and hunger. And I believe that, little by little, we can build into the most preferred partner in the agriculture sector.
Considering the magnitude of your mission across the seven African countries that you currently serve, and your experience in the field throughout the years, what are the main pillars that One Acre Fund has come to rely on in order to grow farmers out of poverty and provide the so-called pathways to prosperity?
Patrick B: In every country we operate in, the One Acre Fund programme looks slightly different, but we always offer four things, and that is: inputs, credit, training, and market access. The reason why is because that is essentially what a farmer needs to succeed. They need access to quality inputs on time, which is a big issue in most of the markets we work in. Typically, they need training on very specific techniques, like agronomic techniques to increase their yield, and then access to the market. You can achieve food security, but to go beyond that on the pathway to prosperity, you really need access to the market to be able to sell your harvests.
Ray E: Among others, one of the things that we do is that the inputs that we give are specific to the environment or the climate, as you can explore further in our “An Introduction to East African Smallholder Agriculture” study (2020), so you’ll find that there’s a region that grows a particular variety of maize, or a region that grows a totally different type of plant or crop.
So, our financing will be tailored to whatever it is that they’re doing. We’re not just coming in to give farmers financing. We build our relationship and, on top of giving them financing, we’re working with them all the way, so we’re training them and advising them on what to do at every step of the way, all the way to market access, so it’s not just ending at harvesting, and that helps us build that relationship with the farmer, helps increase our rates of repayment and the likes.
According to an analysis conducted by One Acre Fund in 2015, you discovered that farmers outside the programme are able to produce an extra 90 kg of maize per acre by replicating One Acre Fund farmers’ practices. What makes farmers want to choose One Acre Fund over other agricultural dealers in the region? How do farmers grow “the One Acre Fund way”?
Clara R: The biggest difference between One Acre Fund and other agrovets is probably the size and the scale. We’re working with hundreds of thousands of farmers and it’s really difficult to serve farmers with the same quality at that scale. Another difference between the agrovets and One Acre Fund is that most of them are just for-profit businesses that have their shops and they have a more retail-only type of model. While in One Acre Fund we serve the farmers through offering the loans, but also offering training, and much more. There’s a lot more contact and interactions between the organisation and the farmer than probably other agrovets would have.
Dennis T: Exactly. And when you look at the agricultural landscape pre-2013 and how it is right now, I would confidently say that the farmers that One Acre Fund has reached, either directly or through spillover effect, have better knowledge on how to plant different crops, beets, maize, vegetables, because One Acre Fund takes a lot of time in tailoring trainings to the needs of the farmers, so we’re able to guide them on the important specifics that they need to do to ensure proper yield, so, even if someone is not a One Acre Fund farmer, I know that they certainly are going to hear of these best practices from their neighbour farmers, which has a general effect on the community around our farmers, so we’re seeing, among others, more improved yields and more quality of produce.
Patrick B: Once again, what makes the difference is the previously mentioned pillars as being essential to every market that we work in, whereas I think there have been some other organisations in the past who would just invest in a loan, which wouldn't really fulfil the needs of farmers, and you see that by the lack of re enrolment in their programs or such programs falling apart after a few years.
It’s important to emphasise that your already remarkable mission had been achieved for many years mostly through group loans and once-a-year enrolments. In your efforts to offer a more holistic experience for the farmer, you’ve now incorporated “Paygo” traits into your model. Why is it so special to be doing so and how different would it be if you were to use it, for instance, for Solar Home System distribution?
Patrick B: For starters, individual liability loans is new; it’s about as new as the time that we’ve been using PaygOps and, basically, PaygOps enabled us to do it, because we needed that flexibility to offer something for an individual on different timelines that we just weren’t able to do in the past. The feedback that we’ve been getting from the field staff is that PaygOps does enable them to get the clarity that they need to track ten different people with different repayment timelines or different loan amounts, instead of just a single group as they were before. This was something we wanted to do and selected PaygOps specifically for. It was one of the big draws of PaygOps as we were going to be able to do that.
Ray E: Adding to what Patrick says, PaygOps enables us to offer multiple financing options: there’s cash, group loans, individual loans, Pay-as-you-go, you name it, so all of this can be captured and streamlined on PaygOps, which means that we don’t get to limit our farmers at all. If someone wants to pay flexibly and use a Paygo loan, or be part of a group loan, they can easily do that. All those different options being now available to the farmers have been a huge addition and, for instance, when you look at agricultural inputs, PaygOps enables us to enrol the farmers in the field, makes our Field Officers’ work easier and, afterwards, we’re also able to link the activities from the field to our shops (Dukas), thus the field officers can enrol farmers, quickly allocate whatever inputs they need, and come to the Duka to have that fulfilled. In summary, it fast tracks several processes that we’re able to benefit from.
In the same train of thought, how important has it been to your programme to be able to serve farmers all year round with such financing options without depending on seasonality? Is there any other groundbreaking addition to your model?
Clara R: PaygOps has enabled not only the ability to serve farmers throughout the year with multiple financing options, but now we’re going even one step further to also offer the home delivery straight to the doorstep, which was something we didn’t envision before having PaygOps.
Havillah K: We’re seeing a continuously growing number of clients buying at any time compared to what we could offer in the past; they’re not limited to sales at this point. So, any time they feel like they want to buy from us, they reach out to the FO, the FO enrols at any time and then they provide them with what they want at any time. They don’t need to wait until the following year. PaygOps has enabled us to do this, because it’s the app that FOs are using in the field.
You’ve understood perfectly that technology is a key means to generating impact and that can be seen in many aspects of your business. As shown in your latest Technology Innovations Report (2021), every One Acre Fund country implements technology slightly differently according to the context and needs, but traditionally, the One Acre Fund Kenya Programme seems to lead the way when it comes to implementing disruptive technology solutions.
From what you’ve observed in our collaboration so far, and looking into the future, why is PaygOps so determinant for you to achieve your goals within your programme and to keep fulfilling the purpose of putting Farmers First?
Ray E: PaygOps is a system that gives us a full spectrum of journey with the farmer, so from enrolment to qualification, to the addons, all the way with clients, we can work with the farmer all year round, throughout the whole journey. That helps us know which farmer has been enrolled, from which sites, what are the percentages on which site, what are we not doing right, among others.
Dennis T: Your platform has been crucial in allowing us to tailor products to specific farmer needs. It gives us the ability to differentiate all the products that we’re offering, all the services that we’re giving and, you know, meet every farmer at their points of needs, so if you want a group loan, you’ll join, if you want a personal loan, you’ll join, if you want to pay Paygo, you can do so. It makes it easier for the field officers to deliver more value and more service to our farmers while it allows the farmers' flexibility to join One Acre Fund and access our products and services at their own pleasure.
Clara R: The main difference from how we used to serve farmers before and how we’re serving farmers now with PaygOps is that we’re radically improving the customer experience. We’re going from a model in which farmers would receive their products once a year, they would only be able to enrol in a group loan, no other financing option and they would receive the products four months after they enrolled, to a model in which farmers can enrol any day of the year with all the different financing options already mentioned, and they now receive this product in a few days instead of four months, can pick them up at a nearby Duka shop, or even have it delivered to their homes. In short, PaygOps has allowed us to establish a new operation model that we couldn’t run before because we didn’t have the technology behind it.
Dennis T: I think we’re going to see more innovations going forward whereby a farmer is going to be treated on the merits of their own behaviours and the merits of their own discipline in terms of taking credit and repaying it. We’ve understood that everything we do is going to be centred on IT, so leveraging on technologies like PaygOps allows us in the field to be able to sell to the farmers, while we are super confident that our activities on the front end are being assessed easily. We’re now able to learn trends in the field, what products and what services are needed specifically, at what time just based on the amount of data that we gather on PaygOps and, over time, that is going to help us refine our processes internally as well. So, technically it’s going to be slightly easier because we have a fantastic tool that continues improving our experience and continues to improve depending on our needs, so going forward the relationship between One Acre Fund and PaygOps is going to keep succeeding at giving the farmer an even better experience.
PaygOps + One Acre Fund partnership started off around November 2020, through a small pilot that rapidly delivered promising results. This led One Acre Fund to test and adopt the full suite of PaygOps, while entrusting us with the setup of custom workflows for their specific business needs, and measuring how PaygOps’ IT solutions could streamline their operations. The pilot started to scale largely in September 2021. By the time this interview took place (March 2022), One Acre Fund was signing up about 10,000 new contracts a month via PaygOps, a number that is projected to multiply by 10 this summer.
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If you’re a last-mile distributor interested in leveraging PaygOps features to scale your business operations, reach out to us and book a demo. For more resources on PaygOps for Agriculture, click here.