AfricaLive talks with Walid Gaddas, gaining insight on Tunisia’s thriving agritech sector and its potential to revolutionize African agriculture. Discover how startups in Tunisia are spearheading innovative solutions, from smart irrigation to livestock monitoring, poised to make a continent-wide impact.
Innovating for Africa’s Future:
Africa’s digital revolution: Stecia International pioneers digital agri-solutions, envisioning a continent empowered by tech-driven agriculture.
Tunisia’s Agritech Momentum
Tunisia’s booming agritech scene: Over 50 applications for Stecia’s most recent project showcasing innovative solutions in digital agriculture and smart irrigation.
Empowering African Agriculture:
Stecia International fosters partnerships to boost African agriculture: Key collaborations with universities, startups, and institutions driving innovation taking North African solutions to West Africa.
Digital Solutions for Sustainability:
Digital tech shaping green growth: Tunisia’s agritech expertise reducing water consumption by 50% in some projects, a game-changer for African farmers.
Fraser Mitchell: If we could begin by focusing on Stecia International. Firstly, could you recap the organization’s identity and any significant developments or milestones in the past two years since our last conversation?
Our specialization lies in value chain development and entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector. We continue to work on these two aspects.
Primarily, we conduct studies, research, and manage projects in these two fields. We mainly operate with funding from international donors. For instance, we prepare development strategies for value chains or work on market access for SMEs and small farmers.
Our goal is to work along the value chain from inputs to the consumer. We offer services to assist donors with objectives to develop entire segments of the value chains. In the last two years, I’ll focus on one project we conducted for around 21 months. The project is named Agritech Tunisia, aiming to develop partnerships between Tunisia and West African countries in the field of agritech, specifically digital solutions for the agricultural sector.
We aimed to foster partnerships between Tunisian startups and West African agricultural companies, including the private sector. We also sought to develop partnerships between the Tunisian and West African startup ecosystems. To achieve this, we selected a number of Tunisian startups in the agritech sector through a proposal call. We received approximately 50 applications and preselected 10. Eventually, six of them were trained and coached to enter the West African Market.
We organized two trade missions, one in Senegal in March 2022, and another in Côte d’Ivoire in December 2022. During these missions, we arranged events, conferences, network meetings, and field visits to various stakeholders, including the Minister of Agriculture in Senegal and different partners. Our objective was to promote Tunisian technology and facilitate partnerships among startups from Tunisia and Senegal, as well as with commercial farms and international donors focusing on smallholders.
We emphasized the utilization of digital technologies to optimize natural resource usage. For example, we introduced irrigation solutions that can save up to 50% of water while increasing production, aligning with the concept of green growth. All the startups in our group made successful contacts and contracts with Senegalese partners, and some agreed to collaborate on solutions with local startups. This fruitful experience encouraged us to extend our efforts to Côte d’Ivoire, a more significant market known for being a major producer of various agricultural products.
Our initiatives and communications have contributed to raising awareness about climate change mitigation, equity, and digital agriculture. For instance, we tailored solutions for Côte d’Ivoire, considering its rainy climate, which differs from the water scarcity situation in Tunisia. This underscores the importance of adapting to varying climate change impacts and utilizing irrigation techniques for cocoa production. The positive outcomes of these events have also enabled valuable agreements with academic institutions.
One of the companies initiated collaboration by installing sensors in the Cocoa pilot farm of Institut Supérieur d’Agronomie – Houphouët-Boigny in Yamoussoukro, becoming the region’s reference to showcase its functionality. With this smart irrigation solution, precise calculation of the plant’s water needs and timely irrigation with the right quality of water is achievable.
I’m really convinced that these are game-changers. In the future, this kind of solution will be used in the entire country for various types of farming. Not just commercial farms, but also small holdings, as they hardly suffer in such situations.
Fraser Mitchell: Yeah, so a very eventful two years, we could say, since our last conversation. It’s noticeable that you have a thriving startup and agritech scene in Tunisia, given that you received over 50 subsidized applications for this project.
Walid Gaddas: Yes, indeed. So, I discussed smart irrigation, but we had companies offering services like cartography through drones, treatment, monitoring with drones, and ERPs for agriculture and farming. One company targeted very large companies contracting tens of thousands of smallholders. Their solution allows efficient management of relations, advances in inputs or cash, goods received (e.g., cotton or rubber), and payments to farmers, automating processes and saving time and money.
The other company offers a comprehensive farm management solution, covering input management to commercialization. It provides essential KPIs and complete traceability, crucial for exporting companies. Another company developed a solution to manage cold storage with temperature alerts, helping save energy—an essential aspect of green growth, given the awareness of natural resource use.
Fraser Mitchell: We’d like to focus on partnerships and how we can create partnerships to address the significant challenges we’re facing. Also, forming partnerships between the private sector and universities to address the challenges in agriculture.
Walid Gaddas: In Côte d’Ivoire, we established a partnership with the Institut Supérieur d’Agronomie of Yamoussoukro, and it’s an ongoing collaboration. The relationship between startups and the university is strengthening. The six companies that joined our mission all signed agreements with this university, including ourselves, to develop specific training programs on smart agriculture.
It’s essential to strengthen the collaboration between startups and universities, especially in this new sector of digitalized agriculture, which is not yet fully integrated into curricula. We’ve started this initiative in Tunisia, launching a program that supports TVET centers and agricultural universities in introducing agricultural digitalization into their curricula, offering it to students.
Fraser Mitchell: What does the green economy transition mean in the Tunisian context?
Walid Gaddas: Yeah, we’ve been dealing with drought for the last five years. The situation has become critical this year, especially regarding water supply for agriculture and households. From what I’ve observed in various regions while interacting with farmers in the past few days, they are truly conscious of the need to reduce irrigation water consumption because their incomes are affected by this drought. So when we suggest that instead of using 100 litres of water for something, you can effectively use only 50 litres they are genuinely interested. For decades, there was no concern; you just had to open the valve, and there was water. But now, they are starting to understand that water is not an infinite resource. So, they need to manage it.
In their mindset managing natural resources is becoming an integral part of their business. For me, that’s very positive, even if it’s a little late. If they had taken these steps 10 years ago, perhaps they would have had enough water to irrigate their land. In Tunisia, agriculture utilizes around 80% of the country’s water resources. So, if we could reduce it by 20% or 25%, the situation would be significantly improved. Technology, in this case, can truly help.
Additionally, the government is also taking initiatives to reduce the use of natural resources. For instance, last year, the government reduced the import taxes on electric cars to lower gas consumption.
In housing, people are increasingly using photovoltaic panels. In agriculture too, although there’s still a long way to go to get the entire country involved in green growth.
Fraser Mitchell: Furthermore, as we can see from your projects, Tunisia is in a position to influence other parts of Africa with your agritech advancements.
Walid Gaddas: I think we have enough startups with significant experience that can positively impact the entire continent. As I mentioned, we’re struggling with water scarcity. So, we’ve developed real expertise in this field, and other countries are beginning to face similar challenges. So, we have an advantage that can be utilized by other African countries.
I am focusing on smart irrigation, but among the companies we didn’t select for our project, there were truly remarkable companies. Due to budget constraints, we could only choose five. We have the budget only for five, and then we found solutions to include one more. But we had companies that had solutions for monitoring livestock to quickly detect diseases, monitor milk production, and so many KPIs that can optimize livestock management. We have startups that developed solutions for beekeeping, others for aquaculture, and others for managing food waste. I was really impressed when we received the applications. This was two years ago.
So from that time to now, I know that tens of startups have been launched with very innovative solutions. So, yes, we possess expertise that can be very valuable for other African countries.
Fraser Mitchell: I think I’d like to address the issue you raised in the last interview, two years ago, which is value addition in the agrifood systems countries.
The challenge you mentioned, of course, is that many markets in West Africa primarily export raw resources. You had highlighted energy and infrastructure being a challenge in creating an agrifood processing system. The infrastructure situation in many countries is improving, and a lot of that is through renewable energy
Do you see improved opportunities for value addition in African agriculture?
Walid Gaddas: I would say we have no choice; we have to move in that direction. But we need to consider the carbon footprint. That’s why renewable energies, whether solar or others, are crucial to develop for any processing industry that requires energy. We have two categories of businesses, micro-enterprises or SMEs have lower energy requirements.
However the big corporations, really need to find solutions to use fossil energies as little as possible because otherwise, we’d just be shifting the problem.
Fraser Mitchell: What does innovation mean to you?
Walid Gaddas: Innovation means many things. I would say, in Africa, innovation mainly has to focus on the introduction and development of digital technologies. Africa is at the forefront in some sectors like mobile payment. This showcases the creativity of Africans and how they can transform a weakness into an opportunity.
Across the continent now, people who do not have a bank account can save and spend money via mobile phones. This shows how digital technologies, even in agriculture or other sectors, can be embraced and utilized by African people, ultimately propelling progress and profitability in businesses.
Fraser Mitchell: The final question is, what is next for Stecia International? How will you build on the success of the past couple of years? Are you open to forming new partnerships as you develop the company?
Walid Gaddas: Yes, in the next few years, we will continue to work on digital agriculture and we are open to collaborating with more universities in this field in terms of training, developing pilots, or scaling up experiences that have been conducted and in developing projects. We are particularly interested in doing this, especially in the agriculture sector and digitalization.
As I mentioned in my first interview, our vision is to contribute to develop Africa, not only Tunisia or only Stecia. We strongly believe there are significant opportunities in Africa, and we can act as a catalyst. We can contribute to improving the situation of agriculture in Africa and the lives of farmers.
Yesterday I went to an incubator where 15 or 16 international start-ups were presenting, and all of them were keen to know more about African markets because they see the opportunities and were genuinely interested. Partnerships between North Africa and West and East Africa, especially after the AfCFTA agreement will develop in the next few years, I’m certain of it.