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The 2-Million Smallholder Farmers market of South Africa is showing its promise

Applications are now open for Innovation Journey 4 - a perfect time to reflect on the process companies went through in Innovation Journey 3, and how they tapped into South Africa’s 2-million smallholder farmer market. 


South Africa (SA) is a unique country within its continent.  For decades it has been a pioneer of development, showing economic and infrastructural  growth. With GDP per capita triple the continent’s average and an agricultural sector resembling that of developed countries, the country is a magnet for innovation in the field. The variety of products exported by the country, such as citrus (2nd  globally) and wine (9th globally), serve as a proof for its excellence. At the same time, South Africa suffers from inequalities. The country still has 2 million smallholder farmers, majority black, that are left excluded from the booming agriculture sector. With limited access to infrastructure, finance, and markets they are left out of new agricultural practices and market opportunities that yield higher profits and productivity. Entire sectors, such as honey production and urban agriculture, are left untapped, and challenges of water supply and climate change hinder the efforts to incorporate these farmers into supply chains. 


This is exactly why South Africa’s smallholder farmers were a target population of Innovation Journey 3 (IJ3). The program was established with the goal of introducing cutting-edge Israeli agtech technologies to improve the livelihoods  of smallholder farmers. Unlike in many other low and middle income countries where smallholder farmers are faced with the challenges of dysfunctional supply chains and broken export channels, their South African counterparts have a well functioning sector, right across the road. This reality opens the door for strong collaborations and faster growth, with a multitude of strong players active in the market.


The third edition of the Innovation Journey program, taking place between June 2022 and May 2023, offered  a comprehensive process, focusing on meeting the needs of three focus areas: beekeeping, urban agriculture and climate smart irrigation. The end results were promising, generating 7 deep partnership discussions between SA and Israeli counterparts, and two $25K grants awarded by the JDC to two of the  partnerships that showed the most significant promise and potential. After a year-long process, led by the JDC, in partnership with the Ministry of Economy and Industry of Israel, and with the Pears Program for Global Innovation serving as the professional content partners, the third edition of the Innovation Journey was wrapped up in a festive and well-attended event in May 2023. 


Focus areas

The focus areas for IJ3 were selected based on comprehensive research of market trends and opportunities, as well as in alignment with JDC’s prior priorities and engagements within South Africa. 


Beekeeping is not living up to its potential in the country. While South Africa is a considerable consumer of honey and has favorable natural conditions for its production, half of the country’s honey is imported from China, with its beekeepers producing approximately one-third of the honey per hive, compared to their Israeli peers. Most of this honey is produced by small rural beekeepers with little resources, indicating major signs of untapped potential.


Another such untapped subsector is urban agriculture. While rural smallholder farmers have small plots to grow food for subsistence, many slums in big cities (called townships in SA) constitute big agricultural deserts, leaving many households to struggle generating  livelihoods and getting the food they need. Although urban agriculture can provide a lot of solutions in such cases, lack of knowledge and access to technologies that are adapted to their realities prevent them from turning to this solution. 


The third focus area was climate smart agriculture. Due to intense and prolonged droughts beginning in 2015, South African authorities limited water supply drastically, with a certain daily allowance per household. This ongoing crisis has seriously affected smallholder farmers, who predominantly rely on rain for irrigation. The Western Cape region, which is home to extensive agricultural activity, is experiencing increasing drought and dropping water levels in its aquifers, and will need to adapt to warmer temperatures in the future. This is an opportunity for technological innovation to help farmers improve production of crops by adapting to the climate change.


Following the identification of the 3 aforementioned areas, 11 partners from the SA ecosystems were recruited to explore partnerships with the program's participants.  After the identification of their needs, and an extensive and targeted recruitment process, 8 Israeli startups were admitted into the program: H4Bees, Ivry B-Hive, Solidrip, Nature Tech, BioLed, TalYa, EZPAck, and Agri-Light.


Over a period of six months, the startups went through a comprehensive process designed to create an optimal environment for partnership exploration:

  • Deep market dive, learning about the environment on the ground in each subsector

  • Processing of the acquired information to understand their market fit, and acquiring essential tools to hold a viable partnership discussion 

  • Gradually engaging with the program’s South African partners to explore partnership interest and to design a partnership plan 

  • Receiving fundraising mentorship to understand potential funding channels for their joint project or pilot

  • Applying for the two $25K grants as a funding boost for their project


The program has been concluded with some important milestones having been reached. Out of 8 participants, 7 concluded the full process, and 3 partnerships continue to work towards implementation. The program discovered the crucial importance in grant funding support, not only for the awardees but also for other applicants. Grant funding incentivises exploring opportunities to potential joint projects more comprehensively than usual. This, combined with fundraising mentorship which opened the door to additional funding paths, helped both sides to continue communication and the exploration process. 


One of these partnerships is the collaboration between Solidrip and 10 Million Makers. Solidrip developed a cutting edge technology, which was designed to enhance urban greening in built environments. One of their unique value propositions is that the device is operating mechanically and doesn’t require connectivity and electricity supply. This creates potential for urban communities with needs to grow food and no access to electricity. Solidrip partnered with 10 Million Makers, an NGO which works to introduce simple urban agriculture practices in one of the townships of Johannesburg. The collaboration with Solidrip allows them to significantly increase the amount of produce grown, and as a result the income generated by the communities. The partnership pilots multiple concepts to adjust the technology to the township environment. 


With two partnerships at a pilot phase and one in the fundraising process, the organizers have optimistic expectations of seeing impactful technologies explore their viability in the South African smallholder farmer market. 


Applications for Innovation Journey 4 are now open! Innovation Journey (IJ) program is an opportunity for cutting edge Israeli ag-tech companies and Ethiopian agriculture ecosystem stakeholders to engage with one another and explore partnerships for piloting innovative technologies, with the goal of bringing value to Ethiopia’s agriculture market and small/medium-scale farmers. Apply here or reach out to us at ron.yakir@pearsprogram.com

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