A banker by day and farmer by night. That’s how Cherotich Rutto reflects on her start in commercial agriculture some years ago.
Ms Rutto’s journey foreshadowed her current role as the chief executive of Tawi, a digital marketplace that provides smallholder farmers with a consistent market, fair pricing, and a seamless supply chain.
It is a brainchild of SC Ventures which is a business unit of Standard Chartered Bank offering a platform and catalyst for innovation and investments in disruptive fintechs.
Tawi is projected to connect local farmers to an estimated Sh200 billion market opportunity.
As a “casino farmer”, Rutto was only concerned with producing trendy crops and not paying too much attention to market forces. She had started with the likes of capsicums, onions, and tomatoes for the local market.
And every Friday after a busy week crunching numbers in the financial services world, she would depart for Nanyuki where she and her husband had a farm.
It was no rosy start and they soon faced the daily hurdles that haunt Kenyan farmers to date including a lack of market, poor understanding of agronomics, being at the mercy of middlemen, and little financial support from lenders when they wanted to scale their farming.
“There were seasons we didn’t produce anything because the soil wasn’t good for the crop we were growing at the time. There were also times we’d have a bumper harvest but there was no market for our produce,” she recalls.
Then there was the menace of middlemen and unfair pricing of produce.
“I remember one day following one of the brokers. He bought our tomatoes at an average of Sh40 a kilo, then went to the market sold it at double to another retailer who distributes to supermarkets and sold the tomatoes at Sh120 a kg,” says Rutto.
“That’s the time we decided to pivot and we are now farming herbs for export to the UK, Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia,” she adds on how her farming journey transformed.
As a banker, who started her career at Standard Chartered Bank in 2006, she later transitioned to SC Ventures where she got an opportunity to help to resolve for smallholder farmers locally using technology.
This was on the back of her experience and passion for farming.
Using a human-centred design approach, her team brought in players in the agricultural value chain including farmers and produce buyers, and started to build technology around the users.
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This saw the birth of Tawi - a business-to-business digital marketplace for secured e-commerce transactions, financing, and value-added services
This would help smallholder farmers who are underserved and don’t have market intelligence on pricing.
They long suffered from a lack of financial access, a fragmented supply chain, middlemen and exploit,ation and little knowledge of agricultural practices.
Tawi plans a phased approach starting with e-commerce, then financial access and later offering value-added services
“We are using e-commerce to address the access to market issue, we are now aggregating demand through our platform and farmers are then able to produce using this demand,” adds Ms Rutto.
Through data collection using the platform and organising proper records for farmers, the information can start helping farmers access credit from financial institutions.
When it comes to value-added services, farmers will be taught – with help from experts – how to increase their productivity and yields and engage in precision agriculture and smart farming.
Rutto explains that the segment they’ve chosen in terms of the buyers’ side is the niche commercial kitchens which will ensure the demand for farmers’ produce.
These include hotels and restaurants, private schools, and caterers, among others.
“The orders are consistent and predictable. Once you predict this demand you can go back to farmers and tell them to grow for this demand,” she adds.
Tawi, which has been commercially live in the last two months, has over 500 commercial kitchens and over 250 products on the platform.
Commercial kitchens represent an estimated Sh28 billion in consistent and predictable market opportunities.
The produce is fresh as buyers are supplied between 12 to 18 hours by the time produces is harvested.
“We are committed to fulfilling the farm-to-fork journey and our process involves sourcing, sorting, grading, packaging, and the timely delivery of fresh produce. Tawi is dedicated to the reliable and consistent supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, cereals, and other complimentary food products to the hotel, restaurant, and catering sector.”
Farmers in Kenya have been part of the digital revolution and are taking advantage of agri-digital solutions to access markets for their produce.
There are currently over 1,000 registered farmers on the Tawi web application. The farmers are drawn from various counties including Kiambu, Machakos, Kajiado, and Meru.
The platform is also looking to go into Mombasa and Maasai Mara where there is a vibrant hotel industry.
65 per cent of the farmers using Tawi are women and 29 per cent are youth below 35 years.
“More young people are getting into farming and will continue doing so if you show them a viable market or create that demand for them to continue to produce,” say Rutto.
“We have siloed solutions that give information on inputs and teach how to grow crops, but at the end of the day where is the market? That’s the biggest question the farmer will ask.”
Tawi organises the demand, picks the produce from the farmgate, brings it to its fulfillment center, sorts, grades, packs it, and delivers it to the clients ensuring a seamless supply chain.
The traceability of farming produce has also been a major issue in the country and has denied farmers export opportunities.
Tawi is able to trace farm produce from the farm to the plate and aims to continue embedding artificial intelligence and blockchain to make it even more transparent.
They can track when an order is made and link that order with a particular farmer.
Their sorting, grading, and packaging process also ensures high-quality checks and balances.
Rutto says they’ve now validated their business model and in the next few years aim at increasing market share and impacting more farmers.
“Through our platform, farmers will earn more for their produce while also improving the supply chain efficiency of high-quality produce to commercial clients. We are doing this by aggregating demand and simplifying the process for selling and buying fresh produce at a commercial scale,” adds Rutto.