All the three T’s with fingertip ease

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A new digital tool is making rapid progress in Bangladesh. It’s easy to use and solves some frequent challenges in ag value chains. Our Foundation plays a key role.

Many challenges faced by smallholders involve access – or rather, a lack of it. Prominent examples are access to markets and finance. Alongside smallholders, lack of such access is also a major hurdle for young agri-entrepreneurs, who often live in remote areas. The Syngenta Foundation is committed to improving access to a wide range of goods and services. “Digital tools can be a big help here”, comments our Smallholder Digital Solutions Lead Mario Kunz. The creation of Soluta-Ag provides further proof.

“One of the main features of Soluta-Ag is an open marketplace”, explains Abdur Rouf. He leads ICT, Monitoring & Results Measurement in our Bangladesh team. “The platform connects smallholders and agri-entrepreneurs with institutional buyers, traders, and other ‘forward-market’ agents. It enables people miles apart to interact easily, compare prices, buy, sell and monitor performance.”

Soluta builds on Syngenta Foundation experience, notably with the eFarmers’Hub (eFH). Launched in 2017, eFH helps owners to run their Farmers’ Hub (FH) efficiently. “In 2019, we extended our vision beyond FH”, says Bangladesh Country Director Farhad Zamil. “We looked at models such as the Farmers’ Center at VSO. Tests and a workshop led us to team up with LightCastle Partners in 2020”. The result in 2021 was Soluta, designed for a wide range of agribusinesses. “Soluta is all about improving the three T’s in the value chain”, Farhad declares: “Transactions, Transparency, and Traceability”.

The tool is available in three versions: Core, Enterprise, and Custom. Entrepreneurs and agribusinesses can choose to pay for the version that best matches their activities and commercial complexity. The Syngenta Foundation owns the intellectual property; LightCastle is the technical and commercial partner for nationwide scale-up.

Simplicity and some help from Covid

Our Foundation’s experience with digital tools for the value chain goes back further than eFH, however. Farmforce, for example, started almost a decade ago. Spun out in 2017, businesses now use it in more than 30 countries worldwide. Here, too, the focus is on the “three T’s”. How does Soluta differ from Farmforce?

“Both have their place”, Abdur Rouf replies. “I see Farmforce as highly comprehensive and advanced, with a global management system, complex network, centralized auditing, and mapping. Soluta-Ag is a very simple mobile tool that’s easy and affordable for small enterprises.” Little ICT knowledge is required: “People with only basic digital literacy can operate Soluta.”      

The use of the tool has spread rapidly since its launch in 2021. “Covid has helped”, Rouf acknowledges. “The pandemic has transformed work at a lot of organizations. It’s propelled them beyond the technology tipping point.” By November 2021, Soluta-Ag was already connecting more than 180,000 smallholders and 3600 traders. Over 500 small agri-enterprises were also using the platform. Soluta-Ag is additionally spreading internationally. By the end of the year, it had become available through various organizations in six countries.

Satisfied users and plans for more

A user in southern Bangladesh is full of praise: Tanwi Golder founded a small vermicompost business in Khulna. “Using the Soluta app has changed my book-keeping”, she reports. “It makes it really easy to navigate my day-to-day transactions and manage my business metrics."

NGOs are happy, too. A key partner in Bangladesh is Oxfam. An official Friend of the nation since the Liberation War 50 years ago, Oxfam is now developing various small enterprises in rural communities. The international NGO provides technical support and soft loans based on performance. Local staff, therefore, need to monitor enterprises’ growth and proper record-keeping. Kazi Azam coordinates the Empower Youth for a Work project. “Oxfam wants more blended capital investment across several programs”, he says. “Soluta is an integral component because it helps us monitor our portfolio in real-time."

Where does the tool go from here? Our local Director Farhad Zamil and LightCastle’s CEO Bijon Islam has three main plans for the next few years. One is to add new features and improve the existing ones. “New options could include a payment gateway, credit underwriting, and farmer learning material”, Abdur Rouf points out. The two organizations also want to create a vehicle for scaling such services commercially. “The third plan is to partner with suitable tech companies on topics such as tool localization.”