David Davies grew up on a farm in outback South Australia and has spent the last 30 years working with technology. As a result, the founding CEO of AgUnity has a firm understanding of the rise of technology and its applications in the agriculture industry. For the majority of the decade, he held senior management positions at international banks like Goldman, Lehman, SCB, and Nomura. After successfully exiting multiple mobile, SaaS, and FinTech startups, he spent a year running a UNESCO project in West Africa and saw first-hand the impact of international development projects on impoverished communities. After attending a FinTech event in London where his co-founder, John, entered a hackathon for which the theme was FinTech for Good, they challenged themselves to come up with the most ambitious, world-changing idea. The idea was to ‘meaningfully help the one billion poorest farmers in the world,” and the foundations of AgUnity were laid.
AgUnity is a social enterprise created with the ambition to help change the lives of the 2 billion unbanked last-mile communities in the world. Tackling issues of poor connectivity, a lack of digital literacy, and a lack of trust, the company has developed a smartphone and blockchain-based solution for the world’s last-mile communities, a simple mobile product restoring trust and connecting smallholder farmers with the services they need. AgUnity aims at changing the lives of smallholder farmers in the world by tackling issues of corruption and graft, poor record-keeping, and farming inefficiencies.
AgUnity was founded in the year 2016 and is currently operating in Australia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and Trinidad and Tobago. They are combating poverty by providing millions of smallholder farmers with digital tools that empower them to achieve economic inclusion so they, their families, and their communities can prosper. AgUnity thrives in the market by cooperating with Fairtrade International, the World Food Programme, USAID, Virginia Tech University, and more. As AgUnity grows in size, they are transforming rural communities and the earning potential of the world’s most vulnerable, low-income, and marginalized people. Through their projects, they have unlocked the enormous potential for farmers to lift themselves out of poverty, with even greater gains possible as they garner access to microfinance, insurance, a marketplace, and a learning center via its platform.
Harnessing technology for the greater good
AgUnity’s approach is unique as it leverages three separate technological advances that have never previously been seen in modern society: mass telecommunications coverage; low-cost smartphone devices; and distributed ledger technology (a.k.a. blockchain), all into a single product. Their target market is the 2-billion unbanked low-income smallholder farmers, development agencies, and commodity aggregators around the world. This market is characterized by low levels of financial inclusion, with few bank accounts or digital identities. There are also very low levels of literacy, and limited access to technology or educational services.
The pandemic compelled AgUnity to be innovative with their services in order to secure a firm market position in the midst of COVID-19. Previously, global mobility to different locations was possible, allowing the company to introduce its products to smallholder farmers. They were able to send AgChampions to train staff and farmers on how to use their solution, but that was all put on hold. As a result, the company decided to slightly pivot AgUnity to launch a new initiative called AgUnity Response, which adapted their existing solution to connect farmers directly with buyers. This was done to assist farmers in continuing their businesses, increasing their income, and reducing food waste.
In addition to focusing on the well-being of the farmers, AgUnity also prioritized the well-being of its staff and in-house development during the pandemic. Their entire team worked and continues to work remotely. David admits that because of the lack of face-to-face interactions and the fact that their team is global, it can sometimes be difficult to support good mental health. Hence, the company regularly communicates to their employees the importance of their mental health and family, as well as the availability of time to re-calibrate. The company provides a free long weekend once a month and holds weekly meetings with all of its managers to ensure that they and their teams are performing well. “I also always ensure I can make myself available if they need me,” says David.
David says that COVID-19 has caused significant disruption in agricultural food chains, but that it has also opened many new doors for AgTech. The number of things that can be done remotely has altered people’s perceptions. He and his team have been able to adapt and thrive in ways that were previously only possible in person. He continues, “Although in-person is the best, you have to make do with what you can sometimes.”
AgUnity’s presence in local communities has made a major difference in how farmers and their communities have been able to look at and utilize technology. They recruit local farmers and community members to become “AgChampions,” who help it educate farmers about their projects and help spread the word. “We also always work with a trusted third-party partner, whether this is WFP or a local NGO that helps us build more trust with farmers,” states David.As a result, the company has grown to over 50 people over the years. Many people also worked solely on a volunteer basis in the beginning and during COVID-19, which he believes contributed to the company’s success and growth. “People believe in AgUnity, and I couldn’t be more grateful,” gleams David.
Channeling economical strategies
The biggest challenge the technology-driven agriculture firm has faced is the speed of its Series A investment round. They recently opened at a time when global market conditions for technology companies were drastically changing. Six months ago, the valuations were sky-high and there was a lot of capital to invest; now investors are slowing down and are more cautious with their approach. Having said that, AgUnity has been able to progress discussions through due diligence with several investors, and AgUnity remains confident and plans to close the USD 5M round shortly.
Moreover, the company was also challenged by the rising growth of data analysis for business propagation. ‘Data’ is a huge asset in the agriculture industry and will continue to be of major significance in the future. David emphasizes, “We use it to better build our technology so that it can serve them in the best way possible, not to sell it.”
According to David, people are becoming more conscious of what they eat and where it comes from. Because consumers now have access to increased transparency and traceability across the food value chain, businesses are forced to source food from different locations and trade differently. He sees the industry as a potential impediment to the strategic decisions that must be made in order to ensure a more resilient food future. David also emphasizes an existing issue: while governments support research, grants, and exposure, they can still help educate people about the current state of farmers and the agriculture industry.
Going forward, AgUnity intends to target more than 100 million smallholder farmers by 2030. This is an ambitious goal, but the company has already laid the groundwork for success. Ultimately, the company envisions becoming the technology of trust that is used by all smallholder farmers and their families, co-operatives, and agri-food value chain stakeholders in developing and emerging markets.