Mar
09
2021
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Wefarm adds $11M to expand its network for independent farmers, now at 2.5M users

The vast majority of startups remain focused on consumers, knowledge workers and the opportunities to provide services to those that are already operating completely, or at least partially, in digital environments. But today comes news of funding for a startup building a social network for what is probably one of the least digital business sectors of all: independent, small-hold farmers in the developing world.

Wefarm, a social networking platform aimed at independent farmers to help them meet each other, exchange ideas and get advice, and sell or trade equipment and supplies, has raised $11 million funding to continue expanding its business, which now has 2.5 million users.

To put that number and the growth opportunity into some perspective, Wefarm estimates there are some 400 million small-hold farmers globally, with a large proportion of them in developing markets.

The funding, an extension to the company’s 2019 Series A, is being led by Octopus Ventures. True Ventures (which led the 2019 round), Rabo Frontier Ventures, LocalGlobe, June Fund and AgFunder also participated. Wefarm has raised $32 million since being founded in 2015.

To date, London-based Wefarm has primarily found traction in countries in East Africa. Its service is available via a website, but most of its users are accessing without any internet use at all, via the company’s SMS interface. The SMS format has now hosted more than 37 million conversations from farmers engaging in around 400 different types of farming (from livestock or dairy to grains and fruits and vegetables) and $29 million in marketplace sales, the company said.

But rolling out SMS services can be slow, in part because it requires Wefarm to strike local deals with carriers over data usage. (That has also meant that the company has tightly controlled growth: if you go to the main site, you’ll see that you can either join a waitlist or join by way of an invitation from an existing member.)

Kenny Ewan, Wefarm’s founder and CEO, said this latest tranche of funding in part will be used to roll out an app (currently in beta) that will help it launch in more countries and pick up more farmers.

“The big step we’re taking is going from SMS to a digital, app-based service, which will remove the digital barrier,” he said in an interview. “We compare it to the shift from sending DVDs in the mail to streaming video online. We feel like the time is right and believe it could take us to the 100 million mark of users.”

From pandemics to locust plagues

Wefarm’s role in helping link up independent farmers — traditionally and by its nature one of the most analog of industries — has taken on an interesting profile particularly in the last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a stark light on a number of digital divides in the world, and one of the most distinctive has been in the wider world of business. Entrepreneurs, companies and organizations that had digital strategies in place could hit the ground running to adapt to a “new normal,” with less physical interaction. Those that did not had to scramble to get there to avoid a nosedive in activity.

Wefarm was around for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some regards it has always been championing and giving a digital voice to the underdogs.

The wider agricultural industry — globally a multi-trillion-dollar enterprise, accounting for up to 25% of GDP in some markets — has undergone some significant digital transformation, but that has been focused on tools and other technology for the agribusiness sector, which includes the giant conglomerates and multinationals like Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer (Monsanto’s parent), John Deere and others.

Wefarm’s importance (and often singular presence) as a tool for independent farmers to communicate, trade and generally network with others like them was already playing out before COVID-19. When we covered the company’s previous raise in 2019 (the first part of its Series A, a $13 million round) it had already grown to 1.9 million members. And, as it happens, for many of its users, COVID-19 was in some regards the least of their concerns:

“In reality a lot of people in rural Africa were concerned about the weather, or the effect of a locust plague,” Ewan said. “What we saw was traffic around not COVID, but these topics. They had different preoccupations.”

But the pandemic has had an impact, nevertheless. On the platform itself, as we saw in other e-commerce scenarios, Wefarm emerged as an essential service for trading at a time when in-person meetings were halted. As for Wefarm as a business, Ewan said that it essentially meant that the company’s country expansion plans had completely halted mainly because business development teams could no longer travel as they had before: another reason why launching an app could be a useful growth tool.

(That lack of travel was also potentially helpful to Wefarm: despite that the company still managed to grow by 600,000 more users, Ewan pointed out, underscoring a clear demand for the service among its target audience.)

Going forward, there are other ways in which Wefarm aims to leverage its user base, its network and the data that it potentially can amass from them.

“We see the possibility of providing more analytics and data. Our users want that very much,” Ewan said. “We now know more about small-scale farmers than anyone else, because they talk to us.” Areas that Wefarm is considering to develop over the next two years are whether it can help provide more insight into more workable business models, pricing models and more data on particular aspects like ripening periods.

“By building a highly engaged community of millions of small-holder farmers, Wefarm has created a powerful platform providing greater access to vital knowledge and information, which allows farmers to unlock greater economic potential from their land,” said Kamran Adle, early-stage investor at Octopus Ventures. “In practice that might mean understanding which fertilisers work best, what the market price is for certain goods, or new farming techniques that result in better yields, all of which can make a significant difference to livelihoods. It’s also an enormous market with more than 400 million small-holder farmers globally who collectively spend around $400 billion on farming inputs. There is a huge opportunity for Kenny and the team at Wefarm to achieve incredible scale and we’re excited for the launch of its digital platform which will further accelerate growth.”

Oct
29
2019
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WeFarm rakes in $13M to grow its marketplace and network for independent farmers

Huge networks like Facebook and LinkedIn have a huge gravitational force in the world of social media — the size of their audiences make them important platforms for advertising and those who want information (for better or worse) to reach as many people as possible. But alongside their growth, we’re seeing a lasting role for platforms and networks focused on more narrow special interests, and today one of them — focused on farmers, of all communities — is picking up a round of funding to propel its growth.

WeFarm, a marketplace and networking site for small-holder farmers (that is, farms not controlled by large agribusinesses), has raised $13 million in a Series A round of funding, with plans to use the money to continue adding more users — farmers — and more services geared to their needs.

The round, which brings the total raised by the company to a modest $20 million, is being led by True Ventures, with AgFunder, June Fund; previous investors LocalGlobe, ADV and Norrsken Foundation; and others also participating.

WeFarm today has around 1.9 million registered users, and its early moves into providing a marketplace — helping to put farmers in touch with local suppliers of goods and gear such as seed and fertilizers — generated $1 million in sales in its first eight months of operations, a sign that there is business to be had here. The startup points out that this growth has been, in fact, “faster… than both Amazon and eBay in their early stages.”

WeFarm is based out of London, but while the startup does have users out of the U.K. and the rest of Europe, Kenny Ewan, the company’s founder and CEO, said in an interview that it is seeing much more robust activity and growth out of developing economies, where small-scale agriculture reigns supreme, but those working the farms have been massively underserved when it comes to new, digital services.

“We are building an ecosystem for global small-scale agriculture, on behalf of farmers,” Ewan said, noting that there are roughly 500 million small-scale farms globally, with some 1 billion people working those holdings, which typically extend 1.5-2 hectares and often are focused around staple commercial crops like rice, coffee, cattle or vegetables. “This is probably the biggest industry on Earth, accounting for some 75-80% of the global supply chain, and yet no one has built anything for them. This is significant on many levels.”

The service that WeFarm provides, in turn, is two-fold. The network, which is free to join, first of all serves as a sounding board, where farmers — who might live in a community with other farmers, but might also be quite solitary — can ask each other questions or get advice on agricultural or small-holding matters. Think less Facebook and more Stack Exchange here.

That provided a natural progression to WeFarm’s second utility track: a marketplace. Initially Ewan said that it’s been working with — and importantly, vetting — local suppliers to help them connect with farmers and the wider ecosystem for goods and services that they might need.

Longer term, the aim will be to provide a place where small-holding farmers might be able to exchange goods with each other, or sell on what they are producing.

In addition to providing access to goods for sale, WeFarm is helping to manage the e-commerce process behind it. For example, in regions like Africa, mobile wallets have become de facto bank accounts and proxies for payment cards, so one of the key ways that people can pay for items is via SMS.

“For 90% of our users, we are the only digital service they use, so we have to make sure we can fulfill their trust,” Ewan said. “This is a network of trust for the biggest industry on earth and we have to make sure it works well.”

For True and other investors, this is a long-term play, where financial returns might not be as obvious as moral ones.

“We are enormously inspired by how Kenny and the Wefarm team have empowered the world’s farmers, and we see great potential for their future,” said Jon Callaghan, co-founder of True Ventures, in a statement. “The company is not only impact-driven, but the impressive growth of the Wefarm Marketplace demonstrates exciting commercial opportunities that will connect those farmers to more of what they need to the benefit of all, across the food supply chain. This is a big, global business.”

Still, given the bigger size of the long tail, the company that can consolidate and manage that community potentially has a very valuable business on its hands, too.

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