Li Yi may be a young Chinese entrepreneur in her 30s, but she has already been at the forefront of transforming agriculture in distant Africa through her venture, FarmWorks.
The concept of FarmWorks is rooted in Li’s realization of Africa’s vast, untapped potential in agriculture. Various challenges contribute to this, including food deficits from a rapidly growing population, climate-induced land degradation, and inadequate access to advanced technology. Over 90% of local agriculture is managed by small-scale farmers who have yet to reap the benefits that agritech can provide, which led Li Yi to recognize that a comprehensive solution is needed.
Agritech is not uncommon in Africa, with companies working on a variety of fields such as agricultural finance, water management, and technological improvements. According to Li, however, many of these companies are essentially “lenders”: they provide resources to farmers on credit and are repaid the funds after the crops have been harvested.
To truly change agriculture, solutions cannot be limited to providing loans, Li said. Instead, it needs to address the entire value chain, helping farmers understand what crops to grow, and how to grow them effectively.
FarmWorks’ business comprises two parts: self-owned farms and contract farming. Self-owned farms serve as “demo farms,” where training, research, technology verification, and demonstrations can be conducted. Approximately 1,000 acres of leased farmland are utilized by FarmWorks for this purpose.
Contract farming projects are more significant to the work of FarmWorks. Such projects enable the company to collaborate directly with local small-scale farmers, allowing it to address fundamental areas such as crop selection, cultivation techniques, and market access. By providing the necessary resources and adopting the appropriate methods, FarmWorks can visually train farmers in optimized planting techniques, increasing their efficiency and yields.
To establish a stable agricultural market, FarmWorks purchases harvested crops and exports some of the produce to European countries with necessary export qualifications, thereby providing access to international markets.
Prior to her foray into agriculture, Li had a five-year stint at McKinsey Consulting, working in various offices around the world. Towards the end of 2020, she wanted to move away from the less practical aspects of consulting and become more involved in hands-on operational work, building something “from 0 to 1.”
By chance, she met her co-founder who had 30 years of planting experience, ultimately leading to the establishment of FarmWorks.
Working with over 3,500 small-scale farmers, 50 farmer field schools, and 18 stores in local markets, the company now delivers over 20 tons of fresh produce daily. Distribution costs and loss rates have also been reduced, and small-scale farmers partnering with FarmWorks have seen their income rise by an average of around 30% in just one season.
With FarmWorks rising to prominence in Kenya, Africa, and beyond, Li has recently secured an infusion of USD 4 million pre-Series A financing, led by the Acumen Resilient Agriculture Fund, which will allow her to accelerate the growth and expansion plans of the company.