Exclusive: Anushka Ratnayake, a leading expert in digital solutions for smallholder farmers highlights ways household farming can reduce poverty in Africa

myAgro CEO Anushka Ratnayake – winner of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, Rainer Arnhold Fellow and DRK Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Fellow – founded myAgro in 2011. She is recognized as a leading expert in digital solutions for small farmers, with a focus on on increasing the number of women farmers, and a key advocate for financial inclusion and sustainable agriculture in Africa.

Below are excerpts from her interview with Business Insider Africa

BI Africa: Let’s start with some background information on myAgro’s activities in sub-Saharan Africa and your role there.

Anushka: I’ve traveled around Mali for years and connected with farmers during my time with One Acre Fund and Kiva. After countless conversations with farmers, I realized what they were describing was the need for accessible savings. So I came up with a simple cell phone layaway model that worked the same way farmers used to add minutes to their cell phones — with a scratch card.

myAgro was founded in Mali in 2011 with 240 farmers and we now have more than 115,000 farmers in Mali, Senegal and Tanzania. We work in West Africa by addressing the root causes that keep farmers – especially women – in a cycle of poverty:

  1. We offer farmers an accessible, affordable and safe way to save money to pay for seed and fertilizer up front. Farmers select packets of seeds, fertilizer and other agricultural materials based on desired crop and land size, then pay for those packets through our mobile layaway model.
  2. We supply high-quality seeds and fertilizers that are scientifically proven to significantly increase yield.
  3. We equip farmers with the information, training and tools to maximize land productivity.

BI Africa: What has been the community response to the myAgro Women’s Empowerment Initiative so far?

Anushka: myAgro’s focus on women is positively received. We often find that women start farming with a small portion of the land given to them by their husbands. Many wives have said that when their husbands have seen their crops at harvest, either their husbands register with myAgro or they give their wives more land to farm.

We also know that empowering women farmers benefits families and communities, as women are more likely to spend their money improving family nutrition, improving homes, or supporting their children’s development by investing in their education . It is these investments that reinforce positive outcomes and overcome intergenerational poverty.

BI Africa: Describe what it means for myAgro to be selected to be part of The Audacious Project – housed at TED?

Anushka: We are honored to be part of The Audacious Project. More importantly, it allows us to reach our North Star of serving 1 million farmers by 2026.

myAgro carries out a systematic analysis of the harvests of 2,500 myAgro and non-myAgro farmers every year. To put the impact of our North Star in perspective, in 2021, when we were serving more than 115,000 farmers, myAgro farmers produced 177% more food than non-myAgro farmers. This enabled them to earn $197 more than non-myAgro farmers. This is a 13% increase from 2020. Our farmers tell us that with $197 more income they can build safer and more hygienic cement houses, send their children to school, or open other businesses. All of this supports their rise out of poverty.

BI Africa: Africa still has to be self-sufficient in food production. Please share four ways you think financial inclusion and sustainable farming can change this trend.

Anushka: 1. The biggest challenge right now is funding. For microcredit, only 25% of needs are met through formal or informal credit each year. If farmers can save on investments or pay for downtime, we can double the amount of money invested in farms.

2. Now that funding is secured, farmers can purchase improved seeds and a responsible amount of fertilizer to make their farms more resilient and double yields.

3. When farmers buy seeds and inputs, the entire input value chain can grow – through the market versus philanthropy. We should see better seeds, adapted to local markets, on the shelves of every agricultural trader. Better seeds mean more resilience and food security across the continent

4. Financial inclusion for women will be a game changer. Women are the backbone of agriculture in Africa. When women have equal access to the inputs they need to make their farms more productive; every citizen wins: more children in school, more food, less poverty and greater economic growth across the country.

BI Africa: What important advice would you give to others who want to follow your example to become passionate, values-based, innovative social entrepreneurs?

Anushka: I suggest that every inspirational entrepreneur learns from someone you admire. Work for them for a year or two, get first-hand experience of scaling a social enterprise, and listen to customers. Your network and insights will be better for it. Your first customers will provide you with valuable feedback that will help you create something worth building.

BI Africa: What are your vision and long-term ambitions for myAgro in sub-Saharan Africa?

Anushka: We want to be a catalyst for opportunity across West Africa. We will expand into new countries to reach more farmers to connect them to our mobile layaway model and the farm inputs and training that increase their yields and create food security and higher incomes. Our model is to reach the farmers through our village entrepreneurs, often women. We will significantly increase the number of village entrepreneurs by creating employment opportunities so more women can take care of their families, become financially independent and invest in their future. And we want our model to serve as a point of proof and guide for other organizations, donors and government agencies to use a temporary savings model to invest in communities and pave a path out of poverty.

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