Dr Eleni Gabre-Madhin: “Don’t leave technology to the men”

Dr Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO and Founder of blueMoon – Ethiopia’s first youth agribusiness incubator – shares her experience as a woman entrepreneur in Africa’s agricultural sector and stresses the importance that agribusinesses ‘think digital’.

Before founding blueMoon, Dr Eleni Gabre-Madhin created the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange to boost trade and incomes for smallholder coffee producers © Michael Tewelde

You represent a strong role model for ambitious African women. From your own experience, what advice would you give young women who want to make an impact in the agricultural sector?

The best advice that I can give for young women – and for that matter, young men – is to really find a problem that you fall in love with, a problem that you want to solve and that you are passionate about, a problem that wakes you up in the morning and that keeps you going when things get difficult. There are many problems with agribusiness and agriculture in Africa. But, with the majority of the remaining arable land for cultivation in Africa, there are huge opportunities for growth in the continent’s agriculture sector. For young women, my advice would be: you can't solve it all, but find something that excites and motivates you, whether it is in pre-production, production, or post-production.

My other bit of advice is to think digital. If you are producing fish or poultry, for example, think about how digital technology can enhance your business: how you can track your process and manage payments better, how you can reach your customers faster. The real excitement now in agriculture is ag-tech. In the intersection between technology and agriculture, there is an explosion of interest and excitement in terms of innovation. I would say to young women who may be less ICT-inclined: don't leave technology to the men. Embrace it, study computer science, even if you are interested in agriculture. There are so many cutting-edge applications like precision farming, smart irrigation and climate-smart tech solutions, which will create very big opportunities for both young women and men in agriculture in Africa.

A lot of your work has focused on helping smallholder producers, many of whom are women, access profitable markets. How can policymakers do more to support women to increase their incomes and develop new agribusinesses?

In the case of Ethiopia, the share of female headed-households is quite different than in other parts of Africa. Here, male headed-households represent the big majority. However, there are definitely ways that women can be more active and generate additional income. Some of those opportunities include off-farm or post-production processing activities. But I think the most important policy to help rural women is to keep girls in school from 12 to 17 years of age. This is the way to capture the dividend of the female labour force in the future. Many studies have shown that it is one of the major policy interventions that would have a huge impact in terms of lifting people out of poverty, and opening up doors and opportunities for women living in the rural areas.

I think government-supported networks of incubator or innovation centres around the country, which provide free wifi or internet access, would help more women and young people develop ag-tech start-ups and further the agricultural digital revolution. Over the last few years, the government has established about 2,000 youth centres around the country, almost in every zone. There is a huge potential to use these youth centres as places where young people can access free internet and use their time in those spaces to really think about the problems that the world faces. From here, they can build ideas for their own businesses.

What motivated you to establish Ethiopia's first youth agribusiness incubator and seed investor, blueMoon?

The motivation was, first and foremost, that we didn’t already have one. There is a gap in terms of identifying ideas that have really innovative, scalable and transformational potential and then having the capacity to nurture, implement and invest in those ideas. The problem is that there is a lot of emphasis on micro-enterprises and micro-entrepreneurship, which are usually traditional, low-risk businesses that require short-term finance. But what happens to the ideas that are high-risk and highly innovative that could have a very big impact? This was the problem that I fell in love with – how to enter this world of crazy ideas that have potential to go far and support entrepreneurs to achieve something major. So, this was an exciting area for me because I was coming from a commodity exchange background, where I had done something innovative and it had gone to scale and had a huge impact.

The whole idea of incubating and investing in very early-stage ideas is a very risky proposition. There is a lot of failure and that failure is something you have to acknowledge as part of the learning journey of every enterprise and entrepreneur. But to set up a seed investment platform, that would knowingly put money into ventures that may or may not work, means that we have to try to de-risk investments. So the way to de-risk our incubator was to choose a sector that we know well. I had enough connections and networks in agriculture to maximise the chances of success thanks to the extensive experience that I had gained in agribusiness. I know who the key players are and what the primary issues are. I don’t know everything, but I am able to advise incubators, give support and make good decisions about whether or not something would be worth investing in. That is why I chose to focus on agribusiness.

It also turned out that over the last 3 years, there has been an explosion of ag-tech businesses in the start-up world. Ag-tech is now considered the new fin-tech, in terms of the interest by venture capital investors in Silicon Valley, Australia, the UK and the Netherlands. So, globally, there is huge interest in the new frontier of agriculture with the application of technology in the sector. In fact, Google Ventures made its largest investment last year to an ag-tech company in the US. But there has also been a boom in the number of ag-tech start-ups that have come up in Africa since 2015. All of these reasons came together when I was thinking of starting blueMoon.

How can more private sector companies be encouraged to invest in agribusiness, particularly those led by women?

I think the numbers will make the case when entrepreneurs embrace the idea of digital agriculture and digital agronomy as a way to find solutions that can be scaled and that solve problems that we didn't think were solvable. A lot of businesses based around applying data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to agriculture have huge potential for sustainable growth. These technological innovations can be applied to all parts of the value chain.

If we go back to finding the problem or the gap that we want to solve along the value chain, whether it's delivery of inputs, precision farming, vertical farming or indoor farming, there is a sense that technology is going to drive the next frontier of agriculture. Better packaging, more effective logistics, improved storage processes – all of these are innovation windows and problems that digital technology can solve. This is the way to make the case for investment in agribusiness. We're not talking about the agriculture of two generations ago or even one generation ago, we're talking about digital agriculture. That is what offers opportunities for young people and women, and makes it a particularly exciting time to support agricultural innovation start-ups.

Emeline Wuilbercq

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.