By Moyo Babalola, Doubra Eghage, Oti Ilentamen, Yewande Adewusi

Portfolio selection approaches differ depending on economic profile, geography, and capital market advancement. The focus of this article is selecting private capital opportunities within developing markets.

As private capital investors within the African continent, the team at Alitheia Capital utilizes several approaches to identify attractive industries to invest in. The common objective of these approaches is to identify the sectors that bridge the output gap of the target countries. The underlying premise is that bridging the output gap would align with government plans and provide the best positioning to achieve optimal growth that outpaces the effects of a volatile macroeconomic environment.

Assets within developing markets present a different risk profile compared to those in developed markets primarily due to macro-level patterns such as foreign exchange volatility, inflation rate, and interest rate. Macro-level patterns are systematic i.e. not specific to any industry or company, and beyond the control of private capital investors. Therefore, it is pertinent that private capital investors utilize a portfolio selection strategy that provides a degree of macro-level mitigation even when patterns are difficult to predict.

This article is part of Alitheia’s ongoing insight series that will showcase our learnings and ideas from nearly two decades of investing across African markets.

You may have heard of the jollof wars – which, for the unaware, is a passionate debate amongst West African countries as to which country’s jollof rice recipe is the best. Fundamental to the tastiness of jollof rice – and, indeed, many other foods consumed across the region – is tomatoes. 

Nigeria, West Africa’s largest economy, has a stake in this culinary debate and, therefore, tomatoes: In response to the growing demand for tomatoes, farmers, particularly in the northern region of Nigeria, grow tomatoes as cash crops that are transported across the country and beyond. 

Tomato has been a tender spot for Nigeria, with issues like storage, transport infrastructure, and disease affecting availability and crop yield. Over 1.5 million tons of tomato is harvested annually, however, most of this produce goes to waste. In fact, it is estimated that about 45% of fresh tomatoes harvested are wasted each year. With insufficient local production, importation has satisfied the growing local demand for many years. However, rising inflation, oil price volatility, and currency devaluations, amidst other macro factors have done little to mitigate the rising threats of food insecurity and farmers’ income.

Local production: the Tomato Jos factor

In 2020, tomato farmers in the small village of Kangimi in Kaduna state, Northern Nigeria, looked to the future with excitement and hope. An opportunity had landed on their doorstep: a new tomato processing plant was being built in their village. In the five years prior to the ground-breaking ceremony, the factory owners had supplied the farmers with farming inputs, techniques, and technology to increase tomato yields, then bought the fresh produce. This resulted in increased quality of tomato output, increased quantity of yield and income per farmer, and a strengthening of the tomato value chain.

That tomato processing factory, a $5 million project, was started in January 2020 mere weeks before a global pandemic was declared. By January 2021, a year after construction commenced, the factory was completed, making it the third largest tomato factory in Nigeria with the capacity to process 3.5 tons of fresh tomato per hour. It is also the only factory in the country to produce tomato paste without relying on imported concentrates. By mid-2022, products from the factory were already in the market. 

The factory is owned by Tomato Jos, an agribusiness company founded by Mira Mehta in 2014. There are multiple implications of the factory operations: local production of tomatoes is increased ensuring economic productivity and wealth creation for rural communities around the factory, value chain for tomato is developed, throughput for manufacturing tomato paste is secured, quality made-in-Nigeria goods are produced, and the problem of food wastage – and, by extension, insecurity – is addressed. 

As Aisha Mohammed, a small-holder farmer in Kangimi village, declared in a recent video that since she started working with Tomato Jos, “I have made tremendous progress in life. I paid my children’s school fees. I have capital to start a new business and I have built a house with the monies I made working for Tomato Jos company.” 

According to Mehta in an interview with ThisDay newspaper, Tomato Jos currently has “over 200 full/contract workers, and a network of over 3,000 smallholder farmers who partner with the company to grow year-round at yields well above the national average.”

Understanding the local context

In building Tomato Jos, Mehta went on a learning journey on growing and processing tomatoes and agribusiness. Part of her research journey led her to California to talk with major growers and processors. However, Mehta notes the importance of understanding the local context whilst observing global trends: “You can’t just take a perfect system from California and plonk it down in Nigeria and expect it to work. You have to figure out which things move yield the most, and which things are possible in Nigeria given infrastructure constraints,” she said in an interview with the online platform, How We Made it in Africa.

With this perspective, Mehta and her team set about identifying the factors that led to the failure or underperformance of other tomato manufacturers in Nigeria. In doing this, they pioneered a new approach to tomato paste production and tapped into a business philosophy that other entrepreneurs in different sectors have identified: understand the local context and build the enabling pipeline, first. 

For the first five years of the company’s life, Tomato Jos focused exclusively on farming thereby de-risking the upstream end of the business before investing in a factory. This approach to developing the upstream first before pivoting to manufacturing meant that the company understood the science and practice of growing tomatoes year-round (the approach also differentiated Tomato Jos from competitors who began with manufacturing before securing the upstream). So that when the factory was finally operational, Tomato Jos already had a sustainable pipeline for raw materials (tomatoes), avoided supply risks that may affect production, and had embedded infrastructures for distribution – including embracing digital technology and sustainable energy.

Like Lidya, Paga, and ReelFruit (all portfolio companies of Alitheia Capital), Tomato Jos took into cognisance the complexity of its business environment and paired this awareness with novel approaches to birth a production model that serves millions of people as producers, suppliers, distributors, and consumers. 

In an interview with TechCabal, Tayo Oviosu, co-founder and CEO of the financial technology company, Paga, pointed out that his company, which began operation in 2012, followed a similar path: “The first couple of years of Paga was building infrastructure where it didn’t exist. We built a hybrid payment infrastructure for the online and offline customer.” Oviosu and the Paga team built for the local context by developing pipelines and infrastructures that enable further productivity. 

Crucially, this approach also means that newer players have a template or roadmap to follow which translates to faster and more efficient deployment of innovations or solutions that have the capacity to unlock Africa’s full potential. Mehta and the Tomato Jos team, operating in a largely informal and underfunded sector, showed the potential for impact through innovative thinking and how patient capital can drive development.

Complete Farmer, an end-to-end digital, agricultural marketplace that connects African farmers and global industries to competitive markets, resources, data, and each other on a single platform, raises $10.4 million in a Pre-Series A funding round of equity and debt. The equity portion of the round was co-led by the Acumen Resilient Agriculture Fund (ARAF) and Alitheia Capital via its uMunthu II Fund in partnership with Goodwell Investments, who were joined by Proparco, Newton Partners and VestedWorld Rising Star Fund. Debt financing was provided by Sahel Capital’s SEFAA (Social Enterprise Fund for Agriculture in Africa) Fund, Alpha Mundi Group through its Alpha Jiri Investment Fund and Global Social Impact Investments, to fund both CAPEX and working capital investments in support of short and long-term growth.

Complete Farmer currently offers two main solutions tailored to farmers and agricultural commodity buyers. On the one hand, its farmer-focused product, CF Grower helps African farmers optimize their productivity, access global markets, and improve their livelihoods through precision farming tools and data-driven cultivation protocols. CF Buyer, on the other hand, serves buyers across the world by providing them with reliable and easy access to commodities grown to meet their specifications. On the platform, buyers can access a large network of qualified growers, get quality certified crops through a seamless digitized process, and transparently monitor the progress of their orders from order to fulfilment, giving them full control of their procurement process.

A McKinsey report highlights the economic significance of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, given that the sector contributes around 23% to the region’s GDP, and the social significance, given that agricultural productivity is predominantly driven by smallholder farmers, who constitute 60% of the population. Despite the glaring opportunity this presents for Africa’s agricultural industry, the sector is rife with supply chain and infrastructure bottlenecks that make it difficult to effectively participate in global supply chains. Given the prevalence of small and medium-sized farms, boosting productivity holds the key to enhancing economic conditions in African nations. Complete Farmer is looking to transform the approach to farming by building technological and physical infrastructure to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of the agricultural industry in Africa. Desmond Koney, the CEO of Complete Farmer, is building a comprehensive one-stop resource for African agriculture leveraging proprietary cultivation protocols for crop production that make it possible for smallholder and commercial farmers to grow crops that meet global market specifications, thereby guaranteeing post-harvest offtake.

The $10.4 million raised will be instrumental in amplifying Complete Farmer’s impact and reach. Since its inception in 2017 and launch on TechCrunch’s Battlefield Africa stage in 2018, the platform has successfully brought together over 12,000 farmers across 5 key regions in Ghana and overseen the cultivation of over 30,000 acres of land, delivering commodities to Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world, as well as reducing post-harvest losses. These compelling milestones reflect Complete Farmer’s substantial progress and its contributions to the industry.

“At Complete Farmer, we are on a mission to revolutionize Africa’s agriculture value chain, to ensure competitiveness for all stakeholders involved ” said Desmond Koney, CEO of Complete Farmer. “We are thrilled to welcome our new partner investors, who are seasoned experts in the industry and have a profound understanding of our mission which enables them make valuable contributions along our entire supply chain. It is a pleasure to have partners who share our belief in Complete Farmer’s potential impact on sustainable food production and food security in Africa and the rest of the world.”

The funds will be strategically allocated towards driving Complete Farmer’s expansion plans, facilitating the scaling of its operations, and further enhancing its technology infrastructure. Complete Farmer will invest in the continuous development and enhancement of its digital platform, ensuring a seamless and user-friendly experience for farmers, buyers, and all users of the platform. The funds will also be channelled towards driving further research into the company’s proprietary data-driven farming protocols and other innovations to improve its efficiency and maximize its effectiveness in helping farmers optimize farming practices and increase yields.

“Having been with Complete Farmer from the start as investors, we have had the privilege of witnessing Complete Farmer’s incredible journey unfold over the past six years.” adds Ashwin Ravichandran, Portfolio Advisor at Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) Africa. “The progress achieved by Desmond and the team are truly commendable. The addition of new investors further fuels our anticipation for the business’s extended impact. With fresh perspectives and resources, Complete Farmer is poised for remarkable expansion, and we are excited about the journey ahead”

Complete Farmer aims to expand its domestic operations and break into new African countries. This will enable the company to reach more farmers providing them with access to quality inputs, technical expertise, and market opportunities. The funding will also allow Complete Farmer to forge strategic partnerships with key stakeholders in the agriculture and technology sectors and build a formidable team for the next phase of growth the company foresees.

Tamer El-Raghy, Managing Director of ARAF, says: “We are pleased to co-Lead this investment round, having been impressed with the progress that Complete Farmer has made in facilitating access to global trade for Ghanaian farmers, as well as introducing them to new crops and sustainable farming practices. Our goal at ARAF is to invest and grow local enterprises that support smallholder farmers in building resilience to climate change. Complete Farmer’s technology platform and farming protocols enable farmers’ access quality inputs, agronomical support, and premium markets, resulting in improved yields and income as reported by the farmers themselves. We are therefore excited to partner with Complete Farmer over the next phase of its growth through expanding in Ghana and to other parts of the region.”

Tokunboh Ishmael, Managing Partner at Alitheia Capital, adds “We are proud of Complete Farmer’s work and the opportunity to amplify our desired outcomes of fortifying the African agricultural value chain and bolstering export prospects through this investment in Complete Farmer. Employing home-grown technology developed in Africa, Complete Farmer serves as a vital bridge that connects local farmers and their products with global markets and financial resources. This connectivity results in increased incomes for farmers, elevated product quality, broader access for buyers, and an overall enhancement of global trade dynamics”

Proparco, a subsidiary of Agence Frainçaise de Développement (AFD) focused on private sector development, sees significant value in Complete Farmer’s innovative approach. “We are proud to partner with such pioneering Ghanaian entrepreneurs. Complete Farmer is a unique digital platform that helps African farmers optimize their productivity and improve their access to offtake,” stated Sadio Dicko, Proparco’s Deputy Regional Director for West Africa. “This investment, alongside other Proparco’s partners, will provide Complete Farmer with additional resources to both improve its digital infrastructure and tap into new markets for the benefit of the African agriculture sector”

Every June 7th, the African Union (AU) marks the African Border Day: a day set aside to celebrate and highlight the work of the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in uniting and integrating Africa. At this time, the importance and socioeconomic impact of borders on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), cannot be overemphasized.

Every June 7th, the African Union (AU) marks the African Border Day: a day set aside to celebrate and highlight the work of the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in uniting and integrating Africa. At this time, the importance and socioeconomic impact of borders on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), cannot be overemphasized. Particularly for high growth businesses providing essential services within and beyond borders.

Borders are more than mere lines on papers or physical structures that limit citizenship and movement. From an investment and financial perspective, borders – and ensuing consequences – are critical in the development of the African continent and its ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. currently, regulatory and currency hurdles inhibit the execution of effective pan-African strategies as the kaleidoscope of each country’s unique policies and regulations present an uphill task for businesses hoping to scale and serve the continent’s one billion-plus population. SMEs, already underfunded, under-resourced, and stretched, are hamstrung by costs, hoops, and hurdles of expanding and trading across borders.

To build sustainable businesses at scale, Africa requires a robust ‘local’ supply chain across and between its states and common regulations and currencies. This uniformity can be achieved through the active promotion of regional trade and integration enabling businesses to implement a pan-African strategy without recourse to global supply chains. Thus creating local value chains that extend markets across countries.

A rethink of the continent’s borders is essential for the effective transnational movement of people, businesses, and products. Agreements and policies, like the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), are a step in the right direction. The prayer is that when it eventually takes off, it will result in the broader export and use of innovation to boost the growth and development of African businesses and economies.