[Convergences World Forum, Paris] “In emerging markets, a strong structure is more necessary than technology”

By September 26, 2013

The Agasha Group has set up a business community platform for farmers and agricultural sector professionals in Uganda, so as to remedy the fragmentation of the country’s agri-produce markets.

On the sidelines of the Convergences World Forum, Sharon Againe , founder and CEO of the Agasha Group Limited , spoke to us about the merits of innovation for smaller businesses in emerging countries, an example being her Agribusiness Directory, which helps to put all the different people involved in the Ugandan agricultural world in contact with each other.

L'Atelier: Developing innovative ideas in the agricultural sector is no easy task, and must be even more difficult in an emerging country. What’s the greatest obstacle to getting innovations up and running?

Sharon Againe: My university studies in agronomy made me realise that there was a crying need for networking in Uganda’s agricultural sector. It wasn’t so much about agricultural techniques or what crop should be grown but rather the fact that agricultural production in Uganda is extremely fragmented. We have a huge number of smallholdings and our trading structure is still very traditional. If you’re looking for a certain type of produce in specific quantities, it’s very difficult to find the right producer. So in 2008, an idea began to germinate: to set up a platform to provide customers and buyers with information on the supply status of the products they needed. Where? When? How much? This is the basic information you need in any trading setup. However, at that time we didn’t have the funds to go ahead. So after refining the idea somewhat, I submitted an entry for the Orange Prize for Social Entrepreneurship in Africa in 2011, and we won the financing we needed to launch our project. In 2012, we launched our first AgriBusiness Directory. We went out and obtained contact details from producers and compiled it in the form of a directory. And the idea caught on. This year we have around 600 farmers listed and next year we’ll have over 1,400. Our goal was very simple: to make it easier to trade. The people in the agribusiness realised this and gave us their backing.

L'Atelier: You’re talking about a directory. Is this an online platform, a networking site for people in the agricultural sector?

Sharon Againe: Well, yes, that was our initial goal. And we’ve been working on it with several IT firms. But for the moment we’ve come up against an unsurmountable brick wall. In Uganda the Internet is really underdeveloped. So at the moment our directory is published in print and CD form, but the goal is to run a website and we think we’ll be able to get it going by 2020, when we’ll have a more complete database and the network will be in a more advanced state. Innovation in emerging countries is also about being able to adapt to the market. Our on-paper directory, although it’s quite old-fashioned, is proving more effective and useful today than an Internet platform.

L'Atelier: So, then, how do you see innovations impacting emerging countries?

Sharon Againe: As you can see, it’s far from straightforward. When you say ‘innovation’, people usually think you mean new technologies – computerisation and digital tools. But in emerging markets it’s often primarily about setting up a strong structure to enable trade to take place. It happens in stages and, as with our initiative, it doesn’t have to be revolutionary but you still have to think it out properly and get it set up. But of course, particularly in emerging markets which are highly fragmented both on the buyer and the producer side, innovations – at whatever level – can help to drive growth at a small or medium-sized business.

L'Atelier: How would you assess your potential impact on the Ugandan market?

Sharon Againe: Some 80% of all companies in Uganda are SMBs, and the remaining 20% are mainly large foreign firms whose profits don’t stay in Uganda. By speeding up development of the agricultural sector, by building a strong, genuinely local market, we can make a very desirable social impact. When revenues stay in the rural areas, that enables a farmer to send his son to school rather than keeping him at home, to take on workers and reinvest in the community.

L'Atelier: Are you thinking of expanding outside Uganda?

Sharon Againe: We’ve already received offers from Rwanda, because even though our system is very simple, it can be adapted to other market sectors and other localities. However, apart from close neighbours whose situation is similar to our own, I don’t think it would be a good idea to try to expand too much. We have specific structural problems, which we’re looking into, but of course it would be a very good thing to set up a larger agricultural market together with Rwanda.

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