Farm Credibly, provides access to loans for unbanked farmers in Jamaica without requiring them to fill out any paperwork.
What is your academic and professional background? What were you doing before Farm Credibly?
My academic background is in Computer Science. I’ve been working professionally as a software engineer for 13 years now. I started off in Agro-Tech about 9 years ago, and my entry point into that was as a co-founder of a non-profit called the SlashRoots Foundation.
What was the inspiration behind Farm Credibly?
At SlashRoots, we started off trying to solve problems around praedial larceny, which is the theft of agricultural crops and goods, and it was a really eye opening experience for me. As a developer, it got me out of the habit of sitting in a room and assuming what people’s problems and pain points were. We interviewed a lot of farmers, and one big takeaway was that praedial larceny really wasn’t the number one problem for farmers. One farmer said, “I have a good technique. All I do is plant 1 acre for myself and 1 acre for the thieves.”
They said their number one concern was access to markets and finances. So Farm Credibly was born out of the desire to tackle financial inclusivity for farmers. At the end of 2018, we were in a hackathon organized by a bank, and that made me think about problems from the point of view of banks. It turns out that the agricultural sector is vastly ignored by credit institutions like banks because it’s very hard for them to assess someone’s credit worthiness. That’s the main challenge we’re trying to address.
How does Farm Credibly work?
We’re in the business of providing alternative credit scores. Traditionally, farmers use a lot of cash and they don’t really have a paper trail, even though some of them are doing business with large amounts of money. Farm Credibly uses technology to build a credit score on behalf of the farmer, without the farmer having to do a lot of data entry.
We do that by forming partnerships with companies that farmers already do business with. For example, people who supply seeds, and people who farmers are making sales to are oftentimes legitimate companies with bank accounts, and they can provide a paper trail to verify farmers’ activities. So instead of asking the farmer to write down every time they make a sale, we get the information from other companies who are also interested in expanding the productivity of these farmers.
What stage is Farm Credibly at right now?
We are running a pilot this year with funding from two grants which we won last year, from the CTA (Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation) and the Development Bank of Jamaica. We’re using this funding to prove our business model. Right now we're helping farmers plant scotch bonnet pepper, which is a high demand crop.
We also have to prove our track record with financial institutions and even micro-lenders, so we’ve adapted to that by setting up a crowdfunding model so that individual investors can invest in farms, and farmers can get access to this financing. We use technology to help with the reporting and monitoring of these farms.
Right now we have a website where people can sponsor the production of pepper on a farm directly. With cell phones being very prevalent, it’s easy for us to have farmers take photos of what they’re doing and give small updates to make sure everything’s on track.
How are you using blockchain technology at Farm Credibly?
Unlike many would assume, we’re not using blockchain for any form of digital currency, we’re using it to build trust. Typically agricultural markets operate with very low levels of trust where farmers don’t trust purchasers, and purchasers have difficulty trusting farmers.
Having a distributed ledger that records people’s history and professional activity helps the more credible people filter to the top in a way that isn’t controlled by any central entity.
It’s something that people can trust, and allows us to maintain a high level of security and privacy. We use a private blockchain, because this has to do with business needs and most people are quite sensitive about their business information.
Blockchain provides a lot of value in terms of general security around information, and there are a lot of efficiencies that can be found when you’re talking about supply chains, whether it be an agricultural supply chain or something else.
What were the first steps you took to get started building Farm Credibly?
Coming out of the hackathon, we had a prototype. We brought that prototype in front of potential users, got some feedback, and continued refining that prototype based on feedback.
We worked on a proof of concept several months after the hackathon, together with NCB (National Commercial Bank) and IBM, who were the original sponsors of the hackathon.
We’re still in this process of building right now and making the product better suited to our users’ needs. We’re talking to individual investors to understand what their needs are like, and what makes them decide whether or not to invest in a farm.
How did you get funding?
The funding came mainly from the grants, there was some small prize money from winning the hackathon, and some of the money came from my own pocket.
What is your business model?
We make money off small commissions when these loans are delivered, and also when the sale of produce happens. But the long term business model is actually in selling credit scores and credit checks. We would operate similarly to the loans bureau. So people who want to give farmers loans would pay us a fee if they wanted a detailed report.
The truth is that 86% of Jamaicans are underbanked, meaning they don’t have access to things like loans, so the current loans bureau is missing out on a large percentage of our population.
What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
Startup funding for ourselves has been a major challenge, as well as building the right team and getting people motivated enough to go hard at this. Luckily, we’ve been getting good support and so far we’ve been able to address these challenges. The grant funding has been great and I’m increasingly happy with the team members that are coming together. So these are challenges we’ve been able to overcome.
What have been some of your greatest accomplishments so far?
I’m happy with gaining the confidence of all these different organizations, whether it’s been pitching at a competition in Rwanda last year where we emerged winners, or being a part of the pool of people applying for the IGNITE grant. The competition has always been really stiff and we’ve been able to make a good case for ourselves and gain the support of these institutions.
I’ve also been happy with the level of interest from the farming community. When we explain what we’re doing and as we continue to build farmer profiles, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the positive reception.
What entrepreneurial lessons have you learned so far?
Lean into your advantages. Being a small startup means that you can move a lot faster than larger companies. Use that to your advantage, adjust your business model as you go along, and find your customers. These customers will fund your startup. The grant funding is great and it’s going to help us move forward, but ultimately it boils down to the quality of the product, and whether or not people are willing to fork out the cold hard cash for it.
Are there any books or resources you recommend to people trying to start a company?
I read a lot of blog posts and other things online. I use Medium quite often for articles that have to do with our startup and agro-tech in general. I don’t have any specific books, but I would say that reading articles online has been a big help. I also went through a process by the Founder Institute which is based in California but has a global reach. They provide a lot of good reading materials and mentorship advice.
What are your goals for the future of Farm Credibly?
I would like to provide a useful product to people here in Jamaica, and a big goal for me would be to expand to markets that are much larger than us, because I really see this as a global problem. I’ve heard it repeated elsewhere that these same issues are faced by farmers all over the world. So I really look forward to the day when we can move beyond Jamaica’s shores into other countries in the Caribbean, and countries in Africa, and the rest of the world.
Do you have any advice for people in the Caribbean who are trying to start a company?
Just do it. In the Caribbean we tend to be entrepreneurial in general, and I’d say once your business gets big enough, don’t be afraid to go through the formal process of registering your business, opening up a bank account, etc. Because there are opportunities, like what we’ve found with the DBJ, that are open for people who are fully compliant with the structures that exist.
You don’t have to formalize on day one, but definitely look at the long term and invest some time and money into formalizing how you’re doing business. I think there are lots of entrepreneurs in the Caribbean, and the vast majority of them don’t have a formal business registered.
Where can we go to learn more about you and Farm Credibly?
Stay tuned on our website, we’re revamping it and should be publishing a blog on there very soon. A lot of updates coming this year.