A growing population, extreme poverty, climate change and increasing sustainability concerns have been challenging global food security. The Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts on poverty, as well as the harvesting and exporting of goods, have generated even greater recent threats to ensuring global food security.
Agrista provides valuable tools for farmers, off-takers and financiers to tackle this crisis. On the platform, co-operatives, food brands and retailers can manage the direct procurement of produce from farmers. Farmers can submit important data such as their farming assets, production records, production plans, and financials when registering as suppliers in integrated supply chains. Agrista also implements GNSS data, satellite imagery and weather satellite data to allow crop monitoring and evaluate yield indices to manage credit and supply risk. Mainly, however, the purpose of the platform is to allow potential financiers to analyse past and present production performance when making credit decisions. Agrista thereby helps farmers to increase their working capital based on their production ability and not based on the value of their assets. This is a disruptive approach to financing agriculture, especially in emerging economies, where food production needs to be increased sustainably.
The ESA BIC Bavaria incubation programme was initiated by AZO in 2009, with more than 185 startups supported by now. Agrista was the very first company to be incubated at ESA BIC Bavaria. Since then, the alumnus has been active in Germany and South Africa and is further expanding into other relevant projects to create sustainable, high-output agriculture.
Pia Feurstein, ESA BIC Bavaria Project Manager at AZO, interviews Helmut Drewes, CEO of Agrista.
PF: You have been successfully helping financiers to support farmers with your platform since 2009. What’s new with Agrista?
HD: We are working on an exciting project with a global re-insurer to develop an insurance product that covers farmers against revenue losses as they transition to more sustainable, regenerative farming practices. This creates opportunities for financiers to invest in a more climate-friendly, livestock-healthy and socially beneficial future. Remote sensing of crop and soil moisture conditions is a core aspect of the product and an excellent application of space technologies. We are working on launching a new brand that offers these financial services to customers on our cloud-based procurement platform.
PF: What were your biggest challenges when first starting your company and how did you solve them? Conversely, what challenges are you facing nowadays?
HD: We learnt that market timing is critical. Initially, we had to work hard to convince a conservative industry to move to cloud services, which made the start difficult. One mistake we made was agreeing on an exclusive partnership with a multi-national bank at an early stage. While it gave the project a lot of traction and revenue at the beginning, we soon realised that we were not strategically aligned, specifically in terms of disrupting existing inefficiencies. This agreement ended just over a year ago and we have been working hard to position ourselves independently since then.
PF: After being in the agritech industry for over 10 years, how do you think the market has changed over the years?
HD: We like to see us more as an “agrifintech” initiative than purely agritech. Acting in the financial services sector, we had a lot of headwind in the beginning, trying to convince customers to move to the cloud. However, the massive growth in agritech really benefitted us, as the market started understanding the strategic benefit of cloud services. Every boat rises with a rising tide!
PF: You were incubated at ESA BIC Bavaria more than 10 years ago. Looking back, what do you think you took from this that helped you kick-start your business?
HD: Coming from South Africa, the ESA BIC provided an invaluable platform for setting up a business in the EU. The funding and support were sufficient to give us the critical mass to give the idea substance and mileage to find traction. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that later momentum is built on this initial momentum. We are very proud of our heritage!
PF: How do you think you were able to benefit from the programme long-term?
HD: Spacetech has been, and probably always will be, “sexy”. Using technology from space is an inspiration and aspiration for everyone, especially those thinking on a planetary scale. Starting at the ESA BIC has embedded this aspiration deep into our company’s values, something I hope we never lose.
PF: As the “oldest” ESA BIC Bavaria alumnus, what advice can you pass on to other startups?
HD: We’re extremely proud of having earned this particular badge. Over the years, we’ve learnt though, that being first does not automatically mean being number one. Sometimes there is a valuable skill in identifying a specific opportunity – even being a late entrant – and then aggressively working on becoming the best. I would recommend to go out there and have a nose for identifying opportunities and pursuing them ruthlessly. The world needs your idea!
PF: Let’s reach for the stars – what is going to happen in Agrista’s future?
HD: As mentioned before, our initial partnership with a large bank turned out to be a disappointment when measuring outcomes against our initial projections. However, we now have a solid technology platform and are starting to see the benefits of an independent and dynamic company. Recent climate events, the massive shift to working from home, and the origin of pandemics from intensive livestock production have led society to deeply reassess how we produce and consume food. This requires a rethink of how we invest and finance agriculture. We see this as a great opportunity and reckon we are ideally placed to make a big impact, particularly in Africa.