AgroData is a community-based beekeeping initiative providing farmers with free-beehives. Based in Nigeria, the startup’s coverage areas include rural Oyo and Ogun states. The company was selected for the Space Tech Challenge for the impact it is creating through organic farming and the use of GIS systems in mapping locations with honey-bee concentrations.
Space in Africa had a chat with Olumide Ogunbanjo, the founder and CEO of AgroData. Below is the Q&A.
Please walk me through the company’s background
We are a social enterprise established in 2017 working with rural farmers in Nigeria. Our solution is based on the bee-farming value chain. We have mapped the honey-bees in the South-Western part of Nigeria and built a special beehive called the iSmart beehive, which connects with our system. In a nutshell, what we have been able to do for the community and ourselves, is to create a crop farming process enabled by honey-bees, where the fundamental relationship is cross-pollination.
Please walk me through the process of geo-location and setting up the boxes
Being that we started with a web app and we have a GIS system already in place, what we do is get the data from beekeepers, conduct an analysis, then go to the field to reconcile this data We look at the farmers in the area because then again, we need to ensure there are more farms and less forested exposure otherwise the boxes might get lost. Once we have the certainty and have talked to the farmers, we bring, configure, and install the hives. The boxes are not within the areas where farming is directly taking place but at corners of the farm and areas that are not often accessed. After the boxes are installed, we talk about planting and how far it should be from the bees. The important thing we probably do is the extension work; explaining to the farmers how it works. However, they need a lot of things to make sure the ecosystem is suitable. After three months, we collect the harvest from the hives, in which case farmers can decide to sell back to us, and monetize it immediately. So, it is mostly technical, but the majority of our work is going out to the fields and bringing the ecosystem to its optimum productivity. We should have scaled to more than 1000 farmers, but we are working around the clock to get more farmers on-board.
How do you ensure that the cross-pollination works, and what happens in instances where it fails?
We work with rural farmers in a communal system under the name, Community-bee Agro Farming Network. We find individual farmers, and divide them into communities as per their geography. As long as the farmers practise sustainable farming to support the ecology, the honey bees and the colonies will thrive, grow, and naturally pollinate the crops. To make our work easier, we encourage the farmers to grow specific crops, including fruity crops such as pineapple, banana, plantain, and cucumber. And we are already seeing these results because the farmers saw an additional 35% increase in banana harvest after two seasons without the need for fertilizers.
Using GIS, we map areas which are most suitable for the honey-bee boxes. Not all areas have the right concentration of honey which can be commercial. We consider at least 62.5% honey-bee concentration before we can set up. Incidentally, the areas we have set up are considered food baskets.
The movement and the concentration of the bees are important. If we notice the colonies are not doing very well, we rotate the boxes, move them around. This is why we use a community-based model. In case the bees are moving from an area, but still, within the community, we ensure that the farmers are still remunerated at the community level.
Based on this, how important is the community model?
The model is important because we cannot control the movement of the bees, we can only make each farm suitable for the ecosystem. The bees might go to the neighbour’s farm, and not necessarily feed at the designated farm, despite an average of 2 -3 boxes per farm. This is because bee cross-pollination is a very natural process. The model has to be communal because if a farmer is not compliant, or in an extreme case, pulls out of the community and resorts to, say chemical fertilizers, then it affects all the farms around him /her. Essentially, what a farmer does in his or her farm affects the neighbour and vice versa.
How many farms do you have in your network and how much coverage is this by land area?
As of January 2021, we have 1167 active farmers with boxes and colonies. This covers two states in Nigeria; Oyoo state, specifically Kiyomu area, which is the local food basket, and Ogun State in an area near the border of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. In total, the coverage includes 17 communities.
How do you measure the impact of cross-pollination?
We are engaged in a number of farm management activities to ensure that we can quantify the impact of the honey- bees. We measure the acreage per farmer and keep track of previous and subsequent output per season. We also control the use of chemical fertilizers as they directly interfere with the value-chain. If a farmer has three acres of land, we try to ensure that the farmer can get the most out of the three acres by improving its efficiency, and the effectiveness of both the cross-pollination and irrigation methods.
What are the challenges you have?
When we started the model, it was difficult to convince farmers to have the boxes on their farms. On this part of the world, we rely on rain-fed agriculture, wind and chemical fertilizers. So what we have tried to do is offer alternative farming and irrigation methods, which in turn earns us credibility. In some of the areas we started, we introduced drip-irrigation guided by GIS to ensure that farmers have vegetables all year round. We collaborated with a company that offer irrigation services, identified upstream and downstream movements of water, and installed commercial grade irrigation systems across farms. The system does not disturb the bees, but instead increases the quantity of honey for harvest. In the beginning, we struggled to introduce the concept, but because farmers have improved farmland productivity and income every quarter, we are slowly benefiting from the growing acceptance.
We see the hesitance even with individuals in the local bee-keeping industry. But interestingly, we are not the first ones to do it. In the US, California for example, beekeepers offer pollination services for the growth of almonds. The industry is worth over USD 100 Million. Bees are transported to a particular area over a certain season to pollinate the almonds, after which they are brought back to the beekeepers.
Interesting. Are there instances when the bees fail to cross-pollinate, and how often does it occur?
It happens once in a while. We rotate the boxes and ensure the set-up is as close as possible to the farm. We also aim to explain to the farmers what is needed to attain certain results for the crops and honey production. Therefore, we try to be commercial because we get revenue from the honey.
How are your revenues in the sale of honey?
Over the last year, we sold 112,000 units of 250 ml and 500 ml packages. This was mainly in Oyo and Lagos states. To produce more and move beyond these areas, we need to scale production and coverage.
What partnerships have you formed have facilitated business growth?
We have partnerships with Total France and Total Nigeria. They invested in the boxes as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. OXFAM has also been instrumental in helping us structure our business and get the company investor ready. They look at our operations, and processes in our hiring practise and other compliance issues.
How many farmers are you looking to have on your platform and how are you planning to scale?
We are looking to make an addition of about 5,000 farmers to our network by October, which translates to about 15,000 bee-boxes to be constructed locally. The scaling will involve more manpower because going to the fields and verifying the data sets is the most labour intensive process in our operations.
If we can talk about the funding to the company, how much capital have you raised so far and how much are you looking to raise in 2021?
So far, we have raised USD 32,000 in grants from various institutions. We are looking to raise about USD 100,000 in equity. This is because beyond attaining the MVP, we now have growing demands to meet.
You are part of the space tech challenge, how has been the experience so far?
The training has been fantastic, our team had three people participate in business development training. We have benefited from the networking and being able to get our story across to as many people as possible.
As we conclude, would you like to add?
My suggestion is that people look into natural rather than artificial processes. The bee-keeping we have introduced at the community level has proven efficient and effective because it flows with the right support. I think there is a lot of good we could do with our communities and societies with natural processes of farming.