Farming goes digital: Meet Ethiopia’s agripreneur
Agripreneur Abrhame Endrias, (age 34) driven by his passion for digital farming, hopes to revolutionise the agricultural sector in Ethiopia with his start-up “Lersha" and the timing might be just right. Every night he discovers a new grey hair, “Let them grow. It’s fine!”, he says as he continues his mission to digitalise Ethiopian agriculture and make it more accessible for everyone.
Agriculture forms the backbone of the Ethiopian economy. Around 80% of Ethiopians are engaged in the sector. However, even by African standards, the yields are low.
Farming supplies such as seeds and fertilisers, mechanisation services and agro-climate advisory are out of reach for many rural smallholder farmers.
Abrhame Endrias founded the digital platform “Lersha'' promising to push Ethiopian agriculture forward through digital solutions. The goal is to make agriculture in Ethiopia more accessible for everyone, day and night. His idea was inspired and challenged when he was traveling and met similar visionaries in Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, and India.
However, challenges for digital businesses in Ethiopia remain. Limitations of internet connectivity, including frequent blackouts, and lack of smartphone users in remote areas are common. In a country where most farmers still plough with oxen, digital agriculture appears a distant reality.
From the vibrant capital to the handphone of a smallholder farmer
After working as a university lecturer, Abrhame started his business in horticulture. He quickly realised that support was lacking for advisory services and availability of farm supplies for farmers. He shifted to building a Farm Service Centre and his company Green Agro Solution followed by his start-up “Lersha" which evolved from his own experiences and problem solving.
Located east of Addis Ababa’s city centre, the “Lersha” office is close to many other agriculture-based organisations, policymakers and partners including the German Cooperation and Ministry of Agriculture. Commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the GIZ-implemented Green Innovation Centre Ethiopia project has supported Farm Service Centres since 2015 and the Lersha start up since 2020.
The Lersha office spirit flourishes, with its call-centre and airy office space which resembles the new work trends seen in the Silicon Valley. Here, Abrhame and his team push digital codes to the handphones of farmers and Lersha agents in remote areas. “In the past, it was difficult to access the supplies we required. We didn’t get supplies when we needed them.", says wheat farmer, Seboka Bekele Urgessa from the Arsi Zone of Oromia Region. Sometimes Seboka discovered pests but couldn’t get pesticide delivered the same day, if at all. The price fluctuation was also difficult, mostly too expensive for smallholder farmers.
Inaccessibility of tools, mechanisation and advisory services are among the main aspects of Ethiopian agriculture which Abrhame plans to tackle. He states: “Lersha is a one-stop digital service. For farmers, coming to Lersha, they can get everything that they need for the farm.”
But can digital agriculture really be that easy?
Lersha guarantees same day delivery for placed orders. To reach this goal and to connect a farmer easily with a service provider without access to internet, Abrhame established the Lersha call centre and introduced Lersha agents to support famers with orders.
”Through a virtual platform on a mobile phone, the Lersha agent can easily speak with the farmer about what is needed or discuss issues. For the farmer without a smartphone or internet, the Lersha agent forwards the order to a nearby Farm Service Centre. From there, the order is sent by motorbike or truck to the designated location”.
Backup plans and the challenge of gaining trust
“Before COVID-19, we tried hard to convince the Ministry of Agriculture and many development partners with our idea, but they were not sure if this really would work in Ethiopia'', says Abrhame. It has been an exhausting journey overcoming doubts and criticisms as many in Ethiopia have not yet properly experienced digital agriculture. “Everybody says: Who are you? What are you doing? And then you have to ask others to trust you.", he explains.
The digitalisation of agriculture in Ethiopia still needs to overcome several challenges. Abrhame adds, “we had an internet shut-down for two weeks in June 2020 and with a platform like ours - if you don’t have a reliable internet connection, the business will be stuck in the development process".
Moments like this became learning opportunities for the Lersha developers. As a tailored solution the call centre (currently staffed by six) was devised. To gain trust in the rural areas and to be able to reach more smallholders, connecting rural communities with digital solutions is to be found in the young Lersha agents.
The role of youth in successful digital agriculture
For knowledgeable and highly qualified support in rural areas, Abrhame trusts his agents, who are mostly young agriculture graduates. They fulfil the mission of making agriculture easy for everyone and serving as a bridge between the platform and the farmers.
Biruk Zewde, a 27-year-old Lersha agent states, “I’m an expert in agriculture. I not only give farmers access to supplies but also advise them on how to use and apply them on their farm."
Lersha Agents undergo specialist training, to provide advice and forward climate forecasts to registered farmers with short messages in both the Afan Oromo and Amharic languages.
With the rise of the pandemic, digital solutions appeared to gain a boost of trust worldwide. Abrhame received a number of calls from different partners (including the government) to speak about his digital platform and how to reach thousands of farmers through a single click on Lersha, increasing productivity of farmers and supporting digitalisation within the national agricultural agenda.
Lersha integrates CBE Birr now, a Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) mobile banking service to promote digital finance in rural family environments and to develop a cash-less economy in Ethiopia. Lersha and IFC International Finance Cooperation (a member of the World Bank Group) are currently working on a concept note to pilot the cooperation with “Lersha Pay”, a digital payment solution supporting smallholder farmers in banking.
Agricultural entrepreneur, Abrhame, also the father of two boys is proud of his agribusiness journey. By 2030, Lersha plans to have 10 million users every year, including expanding to other African countries. "Now is the time to try this digital agriculture in Ethiopia. I’m proud of not quitting. That’s what matters on this entrepreneurial journey."
About the Green Innovation Centre Ethiopia project
Financed by BMZ, the Green Innovation Centre Ethiopia project is supporting the emerging private sector engagement and digitalisation efforts in agricultural extension and advisory service to enhance the agricultural production and productivity of Ethiopia. To find out more, visit the project page.
Author: Katie Gallus Photographer: ©GIZ/Mulugeta Gebrekidan Publishing date: 15 September 2021