How do you successfully establish a start-up in Benin, Francis Dossou Sognon?

AgroSfer, an agricultural and technology company from Bénin, is committed to promoting agriculture in rural Africa. The aim is to enable sustainable development through the coordination of agricultural cooperatives. The AgroSfer platform serves as a marketplace for cooperatives to publicise harvests and create more efficient business opportunities through digital monitoring and traceability. We spoke to Francis Dossou Sognon, the founder of AgroSfer, about his entrepreneurial career and the start-up scene in Bénin.


Your aim is to structure sustainable supply chains between African farmers cooperatives and local and international food industry actors. Was it easy to get actors from the private sector interested in working with you?

In the African context, it can be easier to engage a private sector actor than a public sector one. International development funding agencies promoted our first collaborative opportunities by supporting agricultural clusters of farmer cooperatives and food industrialists. Our proof of concept was born out of these opportunities, which led us to offer our services to private sector actors outside of working with a development finance institution.


What did you do before you founded AgroSfer?

Before AgroSfer, I had my first career as a consultant in the digital payments industry, working on the strategy and execution of digital transformation for European and African market leaders.
After 15 years of working on projects to launch new products and digital banking services, I was looking for new challenges. I founded Acumen Network, a consultancy specialising in digital transformation in Africa across finance, education, health and agriculture. While working on agricultural issues, I realised that the sector hadn’t changed much in 30 years. Smallholder farmers, who should be feeding the continent, are still farming with outdated techniques and are still some of the poorest people in the world.


How did you come up with the idea to found AgroSfer and what gap does your startup fill?

The idea for AgroSfer was born after several consulting engagements with Acumen Network, where we were asked to provide studies and various recommendations and solutions for digitising African agriculture. I thought that with the right amount of technology, there’s room to transform African agriculture in a profound and sustainable way.
The main issue I wanted to address was the mismatch between farmers’ capabilities and the expectations of the food industry. AgroSfer aims to use technology to strengthen the relationship between farmers, cooperatives and buyers. AgroSfer’s platform facilitates the structuring of a sustainable and traceable supply chain from farmers to buyers.


How did you finance your startup?

So far, AgroSfer has been largely self-funded. A round of friends and family and a grant from a French institution have brought in some additional funds.


On the other hand, how was it to inspire smallholder farmers to cooperate with your company?

We have learnt a lot from trying to introduce smallholder cooperatives to AgroSfer’s services. The most important lesson is that farmers have a practical mindset. It should be clear and immediate that there are benefits for them. We had to work on this to improve our offer. By working on this, we were able to improve our offer.
Now we’re continually improving by increasing the immediate value to our beneficiaries.

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You talk about “just the right dose of technology” that AgroSfer uses and you describe it as lightweight, easy to use and operating without internet: Under what conditions can this technology be used and how does it work?

My vision with AgroSfer is to provide effective answers before offering technology. It’s important to resist the temptation to use technology because it’s fancy and sexy.
AgroSfer’s platform uses the most advanced technologies that satisfy the equation of performance, cost and ease of use. It combines mobile applications and modular web applications in a toolbox approach. The mobile applications are nomadic tools, specifically designed to collect data or access training content. They can work without internet and are based on Android smartphones.

The other parts are the web applications. Several modules offer functions ranging from farmer profiling and field mapping to the management of agricultural campaigns and the implementation of traceability. Depending on the business case, our customers have access to the set of tools they need. The web applications provide dashboards and other visualisation features to monitor and manage the required process. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to answer the following questions at any time Who is farming? What is he/she farming? What techniques are being used? What quantity and quality is expected? When is the product available? What traceability is built in?


What was the biggest hurdle for you starting your business as? Which prerequisites were given, which perhaps had to be created first?

Aside from the classic hurdles like early-stage funding or finding and hiring talent, the most strategic hurdles were understanding and manoeuvring in the African agricultural ecosystem.
One thing I personally learned is that the mantra “focus on one thing” is not always applicable when your startup is operating in Africa. You can focus on one problem and solve it if the other gears of the chain somehow exist. In Africa, you can sometimes find that you need to solve the targeted problem and also anticipate the gears before and after it. For example, if you want to improve farmers’ incomes, you have to solve many problems.
We had to understand quickly and adapt as quickly as possible. In a way, we’re still doing that because we’re still building and enriching our offering.


What role has the DTC Benin and the start-up scene in Germany played in your founding and your company’s history so far?

AgroSfer has had the opportunity to collaborate with several German public institutions. We were part of the first French-speaking cohort of the GIZ SAIS programme. It’s a journey that has brought the company a lot in terms of building a strong understanding of our business and the expectations of venture capitalists. The DTC Benin is working to have a deep and lasting impact on the digital entrepreneurship scene in Benin. We have had the opportunity to be supported by them in various ways, such as networking, visibility through local and international events.

I have tried to read books on digital entrepreneurship and learned some very interesting things. But real life, and especially in Africa, is a bit different from the theories in books. Don’t be afraid, try and don’t collapse before you make it. There’s a lot to do on the continent and there’s room for a lot of initiatives.

Francis Dossou Sognon, founder of AgroSfer

In less than 18 months since launching your services in early 2022, you have already supported nearly 15 000 African farmers. A success story. AgroSfer is committed to high-performing African agriculture that creates sustainable value for smallholder farmers with the right amount of technology. As a digital entrepreneur, what advice would you give to other founders who also want to become a stakeholder in Africa’s transformation?

I’d say it’s a good and promising start, rather than a success story. There’s more to do, and I have the honour of leading a team that is aware of that. To other funders, I could say that the best lessons are the ones we learn ourselves by trying things. I have tried to read books on digital entrepreneurship and learned some very interesting things. But real life, and especially in Africa, is a bit different from the theories in books. Don’t be afraid, try and don’t collapse before you make it. There’s a lot to do on the continent and there’s room for a lot of initiatives.


Why invest in AgroSfer?

AgroSfer seeks to make a lasting impact through relevant services. We’re solving the problems of today while defining the African agriculture of tomorrow.
I see an African agriculture capable of feeding the continent and the world, using sustainable methods and rewarding farmers for their work.
We’re looking for investors who are willing to join us on this journey as active members of the crew.

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Francis Doussou Sognon was born and raised in Benin. Graduated engineer in France, he developed his first carrier as consultant and advisor in the digital finance industry in Europe leading major digitization projects and advising Fintech market leaders board on strategy.

Since 2017, he engaged in leading entrepreneurial initiatives with the objective of being a stakeholder in Africa’s transformation. Incorporated in 2021, AgroSfer bears his vision of a more performing african agriculture which leverage the right amount of technology to generate lasting value for smallholder farmers.