Omar Fahmy’s family farm in Egypt’s Nile Delta resembles a picture of bucolic vitality: corn and rice sway in the breeze, lemons and pomegranates hang over the branches of neatly planted trees, cows and the pigeons – the latter a delight here in Egypt – rest in their enclosures. Just outside its gate runs a canal that carries water from a branch of the Nile some 25 miles away.
But while the land itself seems to be thriving, the farm’s balance sheet is not. Over the past 90 years, since Omar’s grandfather bought it, the farm has often struggled to cover its costs, leaving the family with a small profit margin compared to labor and the expenses necessary for its operation, especially since the rise in temperatures and the water shortages linked to climate change require ever more expenses in fertilizers, water pumps and other equipment to maintain crop productivity.
“In 80 years of work, my father hasn’t earned much,” he says. And the Fahmys, who own about 1,500 acres, are far better off than their neighbors, many of whom own less than 10 acres and survive on around $80 a month.
Egyptian tech entrepreneurs turn to agriculture
Fahmy’s solution was to design a smartphone app that helps farmers get better prices on their crops by bundling them with those of their neighbours. He’s not the only one with this idea: As climate change takes its toll on Egyptian farmers, a growing number of local tech startups are launching smartphone-based services to help them deal with unpredictable weather and reap more benefits from their declining harvests.
Egypt is home to the second-largest startup market on the African continent after Nigeria, attracting $446 million in venture capital in 2021, according to the industry journal Disrupt Africa. And while agriculture-related apps accounted for less than 2% of that funding, the looming threats of climate change and food insecurity, as well as the hype surrounding the COP27 climate summit, to be held in Egypt in November are prompting more investors to take a closer look, said Duaa Nassef, director of a startup incubator at Nile University.
“Agri-tech is becoming a very promising sector to invest in,” she said. “There are so many problems farmers face here that you can easily solve with technology.”
Uber for warehouses and trucks
After college, Fahmy worked for several years in Cairo for a private equity firm. He came to see the problem facing farmers in the delta – a 7,700 square mile strip of fertile land between Cairo and Alexandria that is home to some 40 million people, most of whom work in agriculture or trades. related – as being primarily a financial planning issue. , rather than environmental degradation. In other words, adaptation to climate change is possible, but only if farmers are able to get a better yield from their crop.
Fahmy’s solution is an app called El Shuna, which was launched in June to a select group of traders in his region and has ambitions to expand across Egypt. Through the app, smallholder farmers can find space for their grain and bean harvests in a regional bulk storage and processing warehouse called a “shuna”, from where they are sold to distributors or exporters. Space in a shuna is usually too expensive for a small individual farmer, who instead sells his crops through door-to-door traders who offer below-market, take-it-or-leave-it prices. By aggregating small crops through El Shuna, Fahmy can get better wholesale rates and is able to pay farmers at least 6% more than they would otherwise earn.
Hussein El Sharnouby takes a similar approach to trucking. His startup Wassaal, which is still in development, aims to connect farmers with truckers to collect crops and bring them to market. As with the shuna, space on large trucks is generally unaffordable for smallholder farmers. Consolidating deliveries from multiple farmers reduces costs for farmers and truckers.
Other Egyptian agrotech startups, like Mozarus3 and fresh spring, propose to connect farmers directly to end buyers (a factory or a grocery store, for example), so that farmers can avoid the guesswork and low margins that come from negotiating with middlemen. Mozare3 also provides digital financial record keeping services and connects farmers to financial institutions for loans.
Mobile technology, says El Sharnouby, allows all of these startups to reach enough farmers (or independent drivers, shuna owners, crop processors and players in Egypt’s agricultural economy) to find new efficiencies in the supply chain.
“Climate change has changed all the rules,” he said. “But at this point, even the poorest farmers are connected to smartphones. If they tell me they don’t know how to use technology, I just ask them if they have Facebook, and of course they all have it.
Egyptian farmers see space
Other startups create tools to make farms more productive and resilient. 21Farmer and Tomatiki, for example, sell web-based hardware that farmers can use to automate watering and monitor soil health. For Karim Amer, the biggest problem with high-tech equipment is that it is unaffordable for smallholders. So Amer, an artificial intelligence engineer, develops an application called GO which draws on imagery from public and private satellites and can provide pinpoint-accurate smartphone readings on small individual farms.
Satellite data can detect insect infestations, diseases and adverse plant reactions to weather conditions before a farmer can spot them, allowing time to intervene quickly. This kind of information, he said, will become even more important as more Egyptian farmers leave the overpopulated inner delta for millions of acres of desert land that the government seeks to develop using groundwater irrigation. Mangoes, olives and other high-value tree crops can thrive in this sandy soil, but are also very susceptible to drought and heat waves if farmers are not careful.
“We’re about to have a huge number of acres without enough support,” he said. “With the scale of the problems we face here, there is a huge need for technologies that can help farmers cope.”
It’s not just banks, venture capitalists and coders who see a big opportunity in agri-tech: farmers themselves are crying out for solutions, said Mostafa Hassanen, CEO of Plug n’ Grow, which manufactures water-saving hydroponic farming equipment. It’s getting easier and easier to find customers, he said.
“Two years ago, nobody really understood what agri-tech required and what its potential was,” he said. “Right now, we’re really seeing a change.”
Egyptian farmers have an unfair reputation, says Hassanen, for stubbornly clinging to outdated practices. In fact, he says, many are constantly on the lookout for new ideas, but with the stakes of failure so high, they can be risk averse. If Egypt’s vulnerable farmland is to be given a digital lifeline, it’s up to this first generation of startups to prove it can work.
“We need to build trust,” says Fahmy, “to change the culture.”