IKEA Foundation and partners gather in Kenya and learn how PREO companies are driving agricultural development through innovation

In September 2022, IKEA Foundation coordinated a series of site visits in Kenya bringing together partners with a stake in energy and agricultural projects to see the progress made by projects, including two portfolio companies supported by PREO. Aiming to inspire greater engagement and collaboration in future, the organisation, which provides co-funding to PREO, led a broad delegation on the trip which included CLASP, SNV, AGRA, Kilimo Trust, Energy Saving Trust, World Vegetable Center, Practical Action and GIZ. It provided an excellent opportunity for the PREO team to showcase how 4R Digital and SokoFresh are driving efficiency and growth in the agri-food sector through technological innovation.

At their pilot site at Wendy Farms in Gikambura, digital solutions specialists 4R Digital outlined how the company received PREO support to develop and trial a business and payment model in the market which aims to make high quality solar pumps more affordable for smallholder farmers. Their proposed payment plans will offer innovative pricing mechanisms such as pay-per-litre and seasonally adjusted repayments through digital technology whilst also bundling value-added services such as soil moisture analysis. The company aims to reduce costs for the end user by leveraging the supply chain infrastructure of project partner Davis & Shirtliff whose size and reputation are key to making a real impact in East Africa.

Nora Bergin, Senior Project Manager at 4R Digital comments, “We were pleased that the delegation quickly grasped the potential of digital payments to make solar irrigation more affordable for subsistence producers. Needless to say, many of these implementing organisations are highly knowledgeable about the needs of local farmers and future collaborations with them could enable us to expand our range of products and scale up operations. Tapping into their networks would help us reach low-income farmers in remote rural areas, currently reliant on rainfall or diesel pumps and unable to afford the high upfront cost of solar-powered kits, with payment plans specifically tailored to their enterprises”.

4R Digital also invited Davis & Shirtliff to demonstrate the PAYGO solar irrigation systems from their range most suited to local smallholder farmers. Philip Holi, Technical Director at Davis & Shirtliff explains, “We were keen to show the partners that our solar pumps have the range, capacity and robustness to handle the high silt loads typically found in the region whilst maintaining good flow and pressure performance.”

The delegation also visited SokoFresh’s cold storage hub in Kiganjo to see their first-mile solutions in operation as local producers were in the midst of an avocado crop aggregation. The team demonstrated the solar technology powering the cooling units and its efficacy in maintaining produce quality. Denis Karema, CEO of SokoFresh explains, “The perishability of harvested crops is a huge liability for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa where the lack of cooling solutions results in losses up to 50%.” The reliability of their cooling units have enabled a drastic reduction in the rate of loss to under 2%.

The SokoFresh team showed the partners how the company has optimised the pathway by which produce gets from farm to market. Providing cooling as a pay-as-you-go service at their hubs on a seasonal basis has not only removed the affordability barrier for farmers who cannot meet the upfront costs of buying their own refrigeration units, but the company also offers transportation logistics and market linkages that aggregates demand for produce, unlocking economies of scale for participating farmers. Denis Karema adds, “By offering a ‘one stop shop’ for smallholder farmers above and beyond affordable and reliable cooling, we are bringing game-changing solutions to market with the potential to create vital social change in agriculture-based economies”. Initial support from PREO enabled SokoFresh to successfully test a risky business model and the company was pleased to show the resulting solutions in action to potential collaborators.

Jolanda van Ginkel, Programme Manager at IKEA Foundation, says, “It was exciting for us to see that both 4R Digital and SokoFresh have been very keen to develop their products and services through field testing and listening to end-users.” Farmer leads were on hand to testify how the affordable irrigation and cold storage solutions offered by the two companies have led to a significant improvement in their earnings. Hosting a delegation of partners on this series of site visits comprised a first for the IKEA Foundation and for them it underscored the importance of bringing together projects and people that share a passion for driving agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. As Jolanda van Ginkel explains, “We returned home highly energised and full of ideas about how existing partnerships can be strengthened and where future collaborations make the most sense. We want to continue forging connections between our brilliant partners who each bring unique strengths and expertise to the mix. In the end, we are all working towards the same goal of helping smallholder farmers become more resilient by increasing incomes, improving soil health, reducing costs, and improving nutrition.”