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Meet Ethiopia’s digital agripreneur
Agriculture forms the backbone of the Ethiopian economy. Around 80 per cent of Ethiopians are engaged in the sector, However farm inputs such as seed and fertilizer, mechanisation services and agro-climate advisory are out of reach for many smallholder farmers in the country. In rural areas farmers could face up to a day’s journey, without knowing whether they could find the needed input and material.
The young entrepreneur Abrhame Endrias set up the digital platform “Lersha'' wishing to push Ethiopian agriculture forward through digital solutions. The goal is making agriculture in Ethiopia more accessible for everyone, day and night. Abrhame was inspired and challenged by the first draft of his idea when travelling and talking to similar visionaries in Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and India.
Back in Ethiopia, Abrhame founded “Lersha'', an Amharic equivalent to the phrase “for agriculture".
But challenges for digital businesses in Ethiopia persist, through limitations of internet access and services, common internet blackouts and lack of smartphone users in remote areas. Where farmers still plough with oxen, digital agriculture appears to be far away.
From the vibrant capital to the smartphone screen of a smallholder farmer
After working as lecturer at Adama & Arsi Universities, Abrhame started his business in horticulture. Soon he realised the lack of support for advisory services and availability of farm inputs to farmers. He shifted to becoming a service operator, building a Farm Service Centre and his company Green Agro Solution.
The seed of “Lersha" didn’t grow like a plant with water and sun, but by self-experienced helplessness as a farmer lacking farm input supply throughout the country.
Located east of Addis Ababa’s city centre, the “Lersha” office is close to many other agricultural institutions, research centres, policymakers of the agro political field and only a short ride away from partners like Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture. Commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ implemented the Green Innovation Centre Ethiopia project, which has supported Farm Service Centres since 2015 and Lersha since 2020.
The young entrepreuneur Abhame Endrias in the “Lersha” office in Addis Ababa.
Energised by this working environment, and with a start-up mentality, the office spirit of “Lersha” flourishes, surrounded by green walls and wooden decor, with its Call Centre and meeting rooms. From here, Abrhame and his team push digital code to the smartphones of farmers and Lersha Agents in remote areas.
“In the past, it was difficult to access the inputs we required at the right time and at the right place. We didn’t get them when we needed them, " says wheat farmer Seboka Bekele Urgesa in the Arsi Zone of Oromia Region. Sometimes he discovered pests on his crop and couldn’t get pesticide the same day, or, at times, at all. Besides availability, the price politics were difficult, shady and mostly too expensive for smallholder farmers, he continues.
Accessibility 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. As easy as that.“
But can digital agriculture really be that easy? Lersha guarantees same-day delivery after ordering a farm input. To reach this goal and to connect a farmer with a service provider even without internet coverage, Abrhame established the Lersha Call Centre and the Lersha Agent to help.
“The Lersha Agent has the virtual platform possibilities in the mobile phone and will speak with the farmer on what is needed or what type of crop diseases could be encountered. Then, on behalf of a farmer without smartphone or internet coverage, the Lersha Agent forwards the order to a nearby Farm Service Centre," explains Abrhame. The Farm Service Centre will send the order by motorbike or truck to the location.
Backup plans and the challenge of gaining trust
“Before COVID-19, we tried to convince the Ministry of Agriculture and many development partners. But they were not sure if this could really work in Ethiopia,'' reflects 34-year-old Abrhame. He was only offered a small meeting time to present Lersha at the Ministry. For him, it’s been an exhausting journey to overcome doubts and critics as a lot of office leaders in Ethiopia haven’t seen digital agriculture outside of a Social Media Page. “Everybody says: ‘Excuse me, who are you? What are you doing?’ And then you have to ask others to trust you," he remarks.
There are a number of things to complain and be disappointed about, Abrhame adds. “As a digital company, not having internet connection is a very low-light. That was a lost moment for us because we had an internet connection shut-off for two weeks last June. For a platform like us – if you don’t have an internet connection, the business will be stuck on the development process," Abrhame says.
These low lights quickly became learning curves for the Lersha developers. As a tailored solution and backup in case of connectivity loss, the Call Centre, which currently has six positions, was born. For trust in rural surroundings and accessing more smallholder farmers, Abrhame is on another mission. For him, passion to connect rural communities with digital solutions is to be found in the young Lersha Agents.
Youth involvement in successful digital agriculture
For knowledgeable and highly qualified support in rural areas, Abrhame trusts his Agents, mostly young agriculture graduates, to fulfil the mission of making agriculture easy for everyone and to serve as a bridge between the platform and the farmer.
Biruk Zewde, a 27-year-old Lersha Agent, says: “I am an agriculture expert. I can not only give farmers access to the input but also tell them how to use it, mix it up and apply it on the farm."
Lersha Agents undergo specialist training, learning to advise and forward climate forecasts to registered farmers with short messages in both Afan Oromo and Amharic languages.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and restriction of movement, digital solutions seem to have been gaining a bonus of trust world-wide. Just when the pandemic hit the world, Abrhame received a number of calls from different partners and the government to speak about his digital platform to reach thousands of farmers through a single click on Lersha, increasing their productivity and digitally supporting the national agricultural agenda.
Lersha now integrates CBE Birr, a mobile banking service by the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) – an opportunity to promote digital finance in rural family environments and to develop a cashless economy in Ethiopia. Another collaboration may grow with a team of the International Finance Cooperation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group. Lersha and IFC are currently working on a concept note to pilot cooperation with “Lersha Pay”, a digital payment solution supporting smallholder farmers in banking.
Abrhame is proud of not giving up on this agribusiness journey. By 2030, Lersha plans to have ten million users a year, expanding operations to other African countries as well. "Now, it’s time to try this digital agriculture in Ethiopia,” says agricultural entrepreneur Abrhame, also a father of two boys, confidently. “I’m proud of not quitting. That’s what matters on this entrepreneurship journey." Despite some grey hairs along the way.
Katie Gallus, free journalist, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Katie Gallus is a TV-moderator and journalist with a focus on Africa. After studying Geography and International Relations she attended journalist training with a German TV Channel and worked as a reporter in Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Ethiopia.