Inputi: Using Technology to Boost Agricultural Productivity
By Antony Maina | Mon Mar 13 2023
Q&A with Inputi’s founder and CEO, David Lukwago
Renew Capital Angels invested in Inputi in October 2022. Read more.
Food security is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), close to 346 million people are currently affected by the food crisisin Africaas a result of conflict, a changing climate and unproductive farming. In Uganda, agri-tech company Inputi, is helping farmers to increase productivity by providing a digital marketplace to improve B2B and B2BC sourcing of farm inputs, ultimately allowing farmers to access quality and genuine products downstream at affordable prices.
The idea of Inputi was sparked during the COVID-19 pandemic as countries like Uganda imposed strict lockdowns that led to significant disruptions in the supply chain. David Lukwago, a graduate of Harvard University Kennedy School, saw an opportunity to fill a gap in the market to provide access to farm inputs and boost agricultural productivity using digital technology.
–This interview has been edited for length and clarity
What is Inputi?
Inputi is a digital marketplace for the agriculture sector. We connect manufacturers and suppliers of quality and genuine farm inputs with agro-dealers and cooperatives that can hardly access them.
In the long term, we intend to grow our digital platform to include a produce-trading platform that links smallholder farmers to buyers. Vendors upload e-catalogs of their products, which are then accessible to our agents or farmers. This transparent pricing approach makes farm inputs more affordable to farmers.
What is your background that led you to Inputi? Were you involved in farming?
For a long time, I was on the market side. I used to buy maize from farmers and sell it to the World Food Programme. Our biggest challenge was that even when there was a demand from the market, the farmers struggled to meet the demand because their production was very little and there were problems with quality control.
After living in the United States for a while, I came back to Uganda and opened a non-profit with the intent to help farmers improve their practices and link them to markets. I have a lot of experience with setting up demonstration gardens and farming in general, and right now, we have nine demonstration gardens in different communities where we bring farmers together to learn the best farming practices and methods.
How is Inputi currently aggregating the demand for inputs?
One of our goals is to aggregate demand based on location. We are working to make the pickup of farm inputs as convenient as possible for farmers by delivering inputs to the nearest agro shop. For livestock farmers who have more mature and organized value chains, we deliver inputs through cooperatives. Customers are also able to order through our call center, website, WhatsApp or through their agents. We are also testing the use of the USSD code for users that do not have a smartphone or internet connection.
What challenges have you encountered in the two years that Inputi has been operating?
Most farmers know that they need to use quality and genuine farm inputs to increase productivity, but uptake is usually hindered by the high costs of inputs. For example, a farmer may want to use quality fertilizer on his or her farm, but the cost of fertilizer is too high, so they resort to their old planting methods. This often leads to a decline in productivity. Inputi is solving the distribution headache for manufacturers while providing farmers with a diverse array of inputs and pricing transparency. Today, we have farmers walking into an agro shop knowing how much a bag of fertilizer costs.
Also, as a result of increased demand we are starting to see young women and men opening up agro shops closer to the farmers. It is still a bit early for us to draw substantive conclusions but I would imagine we are playing a part in youth empowerment and food security.
We also have farmers who have been growing the same type of crop on a small piece of land for years. The soils are exhausted and are no longer productive. While some argue that using inorganic fertilizers is not a solution due to potential environmental damage, the reality is that we don't have an adequate supply of organic fertilizers, and when it is available, it is often too expensive for many farmers. This leaves us in a difficult position to choose between rendering farmers unproductive or providing them with the technology they need to increase productivity. In my opinion, the key issue is not the use of fertilizers or pesticides, but rather the wrong application of these inputs. By teaching farmers how to apply these inputs properly we can minimize the negative impact on the environment while still increasing yields.
There is a looming famine in places like Sudan. What are your concerns right now as you look at the next few months?
Famine is sometimes a consequence of dysfunctional food systems. This can be seen in the Karamoja region of Northeastern Uganda where a significant number of people have died of hunger. In contrast, in the southwest region of the country, people have an abundance of food to the point of excess, leading to food wastage and loss.
We cannot eliminate famine caused by climate change, but we can mitigate it by improving food distribution systems which cannot be fixed by donors or governments alone. The private sector plays an extremely critical role in building efficient, effective and sustainable means to move food to where it is needed. The private sector should be fully empowered and should have a seat at the table wherever food security discussions are had.
What’s on your wishlist for the next 10 years?
My wish for the next 10 years is that everything shifts to organic and that we allow the market to dictate the products that consumers want. Widespread use of organic fertilizer is not yet a feasible alternative but I believe that promoting its use and making it more accessible to farmers is an essential step toward achieving long-term sustainability in agriculture.
Are there any additional points that you would like potential investors in Africa to understand?
The next one billion people born in the next 30 years are going to be on the African continent. This alone is going to pose a food security challenge. Demand is going up and currently, there's enough data to show that food production is declining. One of the ways to solve this problem is to bring technology onto smallholder farms. Digital technology is going to help us leapfrog all these other broken pieces along the value chains.
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