Nigeria and Morocco partners to help agro tech startups

Nigeria’s search for economic collaboration that promises to add immense value to her productivity and global competitiveness appears to have, of late, centred largely on Morocco. For some justifiable reasons, the North African country, according to development experts, has become one of the irresistible brides for Nigeria’s search for profitable economic partnerships.

For one, Morocco has arguably, emerged a dominant player in the global economy, particularly Africa where it is rated as the second largest investor in the continent, with about 85 per cent of her foreign spend in Africa. The North African country has also been boasting an average growth of 4.4 per cent in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the last 15 years.

With these and other strong indications that Morocco’s economic growth trajectory will continue to improve, it is hardly surprising that Nigeria has, in recent times, found a new ally to seal a number of economic partnership deals aimed at turning around the fortunes of her economy.

Some of the partnership arrangements between Nigeria and Morocco are in skill acquisition, fertiliser production, oil & gas, mining, and technology, among others.

These partnerships are said to have started yielding fruits, prompting the push by some experts for Nigerian tech startups and Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) to leverage them to achieve scale and create jobs.

Skill acquisition takes centre stage

At present, few academic institutions in Nigeria offer specialised programmes related to Machine Learning (ML), data science, data analytics, neural networks and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Their curriculum is also out of sync with global industry requirements.

This situation contrasts with Morocco, where notable entrepreneurs are using machine-learning algorithms and big-data analytics to spearhead innovation in farming, for instance. They use these technologies to analyse soil, water, and plant tissue, providing critical information for farmers, who use them to make precise, data-based decisions.

The Nation also learnt that most startups in Morocco use solar-powered, wireless sensors that enable crop and livestock monitoring, to analyse the fields, along with smart irrigation systems, digitalised farm management systems and drone technology to map out the crops and oversee the distribution of fertiliser and pesticides.

With its afro-centric disposition, the Moroccan government through its institutions is currently focused on supporting the most exciting and ambitious startups in Africa. The aim, The Nation learnt during a recent trip to Casablanca, Morocco, was to help these startups achieve their growth potential. This is by helping them access the knowhow, network and capital they need.

One of the institutions in the forefront of this initiative is Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P). The university is partnering global accelerator MassChallenge to launch the Impulse Programme, which will back startups with funding and support. UM6P launched impulse with the support of OCP Group and its subsidiary, OCP Africa.

Designed by MassChallenge, impulse is a non-profit, zero equity and impact-focused accelerator aimed at entrepreneurs in the fields of agri-tech, biotech, nanotech and mining tech. It will help selected participants take their startups to the next level over a period of 12 weeks.

Selected participants will be connected to the networks of OCP Group, UM6P and MassChallenge, and be given access to UM6P’s infrastructure and laboratories. They will also go on study trips to Boston and Lausanne, and have access to a common user working space.

They will also have access to laboratories established by UM6P; the green energy park, a solar energy testing research and training platform located in the green city of Benquerir, and experimental farms established in Morocco.

The experimental farms will soon be established in other African countries where researchers will be developing models and techniques of rotation and use of innovative fertiliser, as well as plantation testings in different mineral and biological environments.

The icing on the cake is perhaps, a cash prize of $250,000 to be shared between winning startups on demonstration day. The programme also aims to connect entrepreneurs with access to financing through a set of national and international investment funds and investors.

With the impulse programme targeting startups in agritech, the thinking is that an opportunity for innovative solutions in precision farming and predictive analysis may have been offered to startups in Nigeria and other African countries almost on a platter.

It also includes data management platforms, robotics and drones, animal data, analysis tools for agricultural and agro–industrial markets, collective intelligence, transparency and traceability throughout the agri-food value chain.

The other areas are startups in materials science and nano technology, mining technologies and biotechnology.

As sign of a new dawn for Nigerian startups, the impulse team, The Nation learnt, has concluded arrangements to visit Nigeria. Also to be visited are Ethiopia and Ivory Coast. The purpose is to communicate the programme to these countries and their startups.

Impulse Programme Director, Adnane Soulimani,  was emphatic when he said: “We want to build the capacity of  startups and SMEs and prepare them for potential financing.”

He said the mission of Impulse Accelerator was to work side-by-side other partner organisations in Nigeria and the rest of Africa to become instrumental in building startups to grow.

Soulimani said Impulse Accelerator was determined to fuel healthier start-and-scale ecosystems that create more jobs, educate individuals, accelerate innovation, and strengthen economic growth. He said the hub wants to see tech entrepreneurs achieve their dreams of solving problems.

The Director, Global Partnership, Mass Challenge, Brittany McDonough, said the organisation was committed to delivering social and economic development through startups, adding that this involves collaboration with the public and private sectors, large corporate entities and smaller tech companies throughout the world.

While pointing out that a major highlight of the programme include networking with like-minded entrepreneurs, policy-makers and corporates, she said supporting SME growth through access to markets, capital and skills development was critical.

According to her, platforms such as MassChallenge offers valuable access to international exposure, networking and partnership opportunities small tech companies need to take their businesses to the next level. She added that MassChallenge does not take equity from startups it supports.

Thriving partnership in agric holds promises

The former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, and his Moroccan counterpart, Aziz Akhannouch, recently signed a cooperation agreement on vocational training and technical support, which will enhance capacity for agricultural management in Nigeria.

However, the highpoint of the cooperation agreement between Nigeria and Morocco was the signing of the deal to revive the abandoned Nigerian fertiliser blending plants. That was in December 2016.

The deal literarily worked magic. Fourteen fertiliser plants have so far been revitalised under the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative (PFI) with a capacity of 2.3 million metric tonnes of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) fertiliser.

There is also the signing of the agreement on Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project, vocational training in agriculture and building of a chemical plant in Nigeria.

At the signing of the agreements, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said his government was harnessing the human and material resources available in the country, especially in the educational and agricultural sectors, while seeking partnerships with countries that can explore the huge potential in Nigeria.

The president noted that Nigeria was already on the verge of an agricultural revolution as the importation of rice had been cut down by 90 per cent in 18 months. “We need to do more to improve our statistics on food production and graciously, the weather has been auspicious in the last couple of years for agricultural growth. We are happy that through partnership with you (Morocco) and hard work, the price of fertilizser is already down by 50 per cent,’’ he said.

UM6P has also moved a notch higher, extending its skill acquisition to Nigerian startups to seeking partnership with Nigerian universities to boost agric. The partnership will be supported by OCP Group, which is one of the largest exporters of phosphate fertiliser in the world.

Secretary General of UM6P, Hicham Habti, said OCP, through its Research and Development (R&D) programme and in close co-operation with the university, was developing fertiliser specific to the needs of African soils and crops.

It is also developing locally appropriate service models for African farmers to have reliable, affordable access to these inputs and related products.

As part of the coming African agricultural revolution, OCP is already investing in latest technologies and state-of-the-art agricultural methods, including a new project in AI and Big Data to upgrade efficiency in production and prepare for the challenges likely to face African agriculture in the future,

OCP Africa in a statement noted that once completed, the new project would allow the company to use satellite imagery, weather forecast, and historical data to predict and respond to the fluctuations and demands of the continent’s agriculture industry.

“Thanks to this tool, we will be able to think ahead of market’s changes and evolutions and be operationally prepared to meet our clients’ demands,” the company said.

Also included in OCP’s new vision for Nigeria and other African markets is the establishment of an e-market platform to ease farmers’ access to global agricultural trends. On the e-platform, farmers will find information about prices of supplies and weather forecasts.

To familiarise farmers with its digitisation project, OCP Africa said it would increase investments in its agri-booster and agri-promoter projects, two of the four signature projects that have gained OCP its current continental influence.

OCP Africa has used the two projects in the past two years to finance agriculture-linked education. Training involves familiarising farmers with the types of fertiliser most compatible with the kind of soil they work with.

The company has also organised contests for agriculture startups across the continent. It has also provided university scholarships for agricultural and environment engineering students.

Renewable energy also

Nigeria has some of Africa’s most abundant renewable energy resources, sunshine and hydropower, and biomass fed by rivers and expansive farmland. But, despite its potential, the country has fallen behind many of its neighbours in turning these resources into reliable power sources.

Nigeria’s grid is operating below capacity, leaving residents and businesses without steady and reliable electricity. Seventy per cent of electricity is generated from fossil fuels, with unreliable power supply posing a serious obstacle to economic transformation.

Experts believe the nation has the opportunity to protect the people, environment and future economic development with a range of renewable energy sources. This, according to them, requires diversifying the country’s energy mix, easing dependence on imported fossil fuels, and reducing carbon emissions.

For instance, the Chief Executive Officer, All On, Dr. Wiebe Boer, said startups  and SMEs should be empowered to explore business opportunities in providing  small-scale solar plants  to supply  energy in rural areas.

From portable solar lanterns to pay-as-you-go solar home systems, he noted that startups can develop off-grid energy systems targeting thousands of Nigerians who have little or no access to reliable electricity supply. He said solar home systems make renewable energy affordable for almost anyone

Already, the co-founder of Nalida Power, a startup, Salma Moustaid, has declared her intension to partner Nigerian start-ups in this area. Moustaid, a Moroccan entrepreneur, has developed a solar tree 100 per cent Moroccan.

As the name suggests, it is a metal tree, whose branches and leaves are replaced by solar panels. Weatherproof, the material can be modified and installed with ease. The solar tree combines urban design, aesthetics and ecological energy.

The solar panels receive solar energy and store it in batteries. Twelve people can use one energy tree to recharge their phones through plugs and USB ports. The solar shafts contain Wi-Fi terminals and will provide free Internet access.

Nigeria’s promising startup space

The global startup economy is huge, creating $2.8 trillion in value between 2016 and 2018, according to Startup Genome, an international report on entrepreneurship growth.

Like other parts of Africa, Startups and MSMEs have played important roles in the economic development of Nigeria. Already, entrepreneur-driven innovations are disrupting the traditional ways doing things. Startups and MSMEs also comprise around 70 per cent of all businesses.

In Lagos, for instance and other major cities across Nigeria, several digital solutions in health, agriculture, commerce, energy, and countless other industries are providing services where none had existed before.

A growing number of seed funds are also providing capital to startups such as Growth Capital Fund, Lagos Angel Network (LAN) and Micro Traction. For instance, LAN has grown more active in providing seed and pre-seed capital to entrepreneurs.

On the whole, experts believe Nigeria stands to benefit from empowering startups and small businesses. One of them, Chief Executive, Nigeria Climate Innovation Centre, Mr. Bankole Oloruntoba, said a lot of smart people are solving some of Nigeria’s biggest economic and social problems using startups platform.

Nigeria Climate Innovation Centre is a World Bank and Federal Government initiative to drive the growth of a green economy in Nigeria,

Oloruntoba said with a population of over 190 million and still growing, Nigeria is a hotspot market. According to him, Nigerian startups are attracting more and more massive investments.

The challenges

While startups globally have made tremendous advances in communication technology, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and AI, among others, startups in Nigeria are facing some challenges in their bid to survive and achieve scale.

Some of the challenges include lack of access to startup capital, harsh operating environment, and lack of skill, among others. Experts, however, believe that startups in Nigeria need to be supported to be able to develop solutions in areas such as the Internet of Things, advanced robotics, and AI.

Oloruntoba said to achieve the desired broad-based economic and societal impact and maximise productivity benefits, technology must be adopted at scale and diffused throughout the ecosystem. He said this, however, requires strengthening collaboration between governments, businesses, academia and civil society.

He also said the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) offers a unique opportunity for countries with smart economic policies to boost energy efficiency and sustainable transport, to raise domestic value added and increase economic growth.

To this end, enabling Nigeria to benefit from 4IR, which extends beyond technologies and presents a shift from commodities-based economies and manual labour to services-driven economies, will require boosting the capacities of startups to boost activities in all sectors.

The President, Association of Micro Enterprises of Nigeria (AMEN), Prince Saviour Iche, stressed the need to support MSMEs, which, according to him, are key aspect of the industry development strategy. He said MSMEs contribute 70 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP and employ 75 per cent of the workforce.

According to him, there is need for Nigerian to simultaneously create an enabling environment for investors, build critical infrastructure and get the workforce up to speed with international best practices and skills in order to be globally competitive.

A French expert in precision farming and member of the Board for Digital Africa, Herve Pillaud, emphasised the need for exchange of ideas between African entrepreneurs on digitalisation.

The objective of Digital Africa is to facilitate the exchange of ideas between French and African associations and entrepreneurs, as well as to share a French perspective on digitalisation.

Pillaud said building capacities for adapting technologies by different farmers, adding that there has been increase in the number of startups in the field of precision farming, offering a variety of products, from sensors that obtain accurate data to the products that simplify the decision-making process

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