Distributed agtech to build a stable food supply

We live in a fragile, interconnected world. As the COVID pandemic has made clear, local disruptions can reverberate along our increasingly long, complex supply chains, making it harder for food to move from farms to tables around the world.

What’s more, these disruptions are becoming the norm. Geopolitical unrest — especially the war in Ukraine — is threatening the world’s grain supply. As climate change accelerates, extreme weather events like wildfires and floods are becoming more common. All of these global disruptions tend to fall hardest on those already facing food insecurity — especially in African countries, which import about 85% of their food from outside the continent.

We urgently need agricultural innovations that empower farmers around the world to build a more resilient food supply, which is the motivation behind our Leap 09 / Prevent crop and food loss. Food systems that bring farmers closer to consumers increase local resilience and reduce the environmental impacts of food transport. When I mention agricultural innovations, you might think of high-protein crops or data-driven precision farming, which can dramatically reduce the use of agricultural inputs. But increasing the scale and distribution of existing technologies can be just as important as developing these technologies in the first place.

That’s why I’m enthusiastic about the innovative approach of Apollo Agriculture, a Nairobi-based Leaps portfolio company that recently closed a $40 million series B. Agriculture is a huge source of livelihood and nutrition in Africa, and African countries contain 20% of the world’s farmland. But most African farmers are far from unlocking their land’s potential, and harvests per acre are only one-fifth of those in North America. A major problem is that smallholder farmers face many barriers to accessing the credit, inputs, insurance, advisory, and market access that they need to succeed. Apollo’s vision is to help farmers access these key resources, empowering them to nourish their families and communities and contribute to food stability and security around the world.

Apollo tackles these challenging structural barriers to access with innovative digital and financial technologies that reach farmers where they are. Farmers apply via SMS for inputs and financing, and Apollo incorporates satellite data, machine learning, and visits from agents on the ground to make credit decisions that enable access to quality inputs . Apollo’s platform of automated operations was designed with scalability in mind, helping their network of more than 5000 agents and 900 retailers reach over 160,000 farmers so far, with plans to more than double the number of farmers financed in the next year. These investments have helped farmers dramatically increase their productivity, sometimes more than doubling their yields with Apollo’s help. This panel discussion featuring Apollo co-founder Benjamin Njenga at the NYTimes Climate Hub during COP26 is particularly insightful about the challenges faced by farmers and their unique approach.

Moving forward, the start-up is aiming to help farmers increase their profitability by moving towards commercial farming and helping farmers diversify from maize to high-value crops. They are also helping farmers build climate resilience, an important consideration as African nations have already begun feeling the effects of a changing climate. Apollo is providing crop insurance to help insulate against extreme weather events and is helping farmers to adopt better agronomic practices and technologies that will enable greater resilience to the effects of droughts and changing rainfall patterns.

The pandemic has reversed hard-won gains in our global fight against poverty and hunger, sending an estimated 33 million additional people into extreme poverty. And the effects of the pandemic will continue to be felt for many years. By increasing the scale and access of these agricultural innovations, I am hopeful that Apollo can help build a food system more resilient against future disruptions.

We need both swift, urgent action and a steady, long-term vision for building more stable, resilient food supplies to to achieve Bayer’s vision of Health for All, Hunger for None.

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Leaps by Bayer

Leaps by Bayer invests in paradigm-shifting advances in the life sciences — breakthroughs that could change the world for the better. https://leaps.bayer.com/