Limited financing, high post-harvest losses, and low access to markets in Nigeria’s agricultural sector have stifled productivity and affected the sector’s contribution to Nigeria’s GDP.
AFEX Commodities Exchange is building innovative solutions in trading, financing, and market system development to address these problems. By creating the right incentives and a shared platform, AFEX is making Nigeria’s agricultural sector more inclusive, scalable, and efficient.
Established in 2014 as Nigeria’s first licensed private commodities exchange, AFEX has facilitated trade in commodities with a total value of $68 million (N28 billion) over the last five years. Today, AFEX has 250,000 farmers on its platform that produce maize, cocoa, soyabeans, paddy rice, sorghum, and ginger.
I spoke with Yusuf Oguntola, CTO of AFEX, about the technology behind AFEX, overseeing a team of 25 people, and what it takes to build successful software solutions for Africa.
Share your journey into tech?
My name is Yusuf Oguntola, and I’m the CTO of AFEX Commodities Exchange. I’ve been in the tech space for over a decade, working as a software engineer. I’ve built solutions with Java, .NET, Python, C++ alongside senior engineers from Africa, Europe, and Asia. For a range of industries, including telecoms, hospitality, government, and oil and gas.
I joined AFEX as a business technology leader in 2018 and got promoted to the role of CTO earlier this year. As CTO, I lead a diverse team of 25 people, including software engineers, product managers, and UI/UX designers.
What is AFEX Nigeria, and what value does AFEX provide to the marketplace?
AFEX launched six years ago as the first private licensed commodities exchange in Nigeria. A commodities exchange, by definition, is a marketplace where producers and buyers interact. Upon entering the market, we noticed that the value chain was dispersed. The buyers and the producers were not coordinated, resulting in significant post-harvest losses.
If a farmer produced 10 thousand metric tonnes of grains, by the time it got to the market, it was already 6 or 7 thousand tonnes. And if they didn’t sell the grains within one or two days, they would lose another 1 – 2 thousand metric tonnes.
Because buyers and producers were not coordinated, middlemen controlled the market. They would buy commodities from smallholder farmers for cheap and then sell them for high-profit margins to grain processors. The middlemen made most of the money, while the smallholder farmers were often left with nothing. This model persisted because many farmers felt they didn’t have a choice. If they didn’t sell, they risked the chance of their commodities going to waste. We solved both of these problems by building a new value chain.
What is AFEX’s service offering, and what role does software play in the delivery?
Almost immediately after we launched AFEX, we started the Input Financing Programme, which provides smallholder farmers access to financing to obtain quality inputs. We launched the program because we had processors ready to buy commodities in large quantities, but the farmers we were working with weren’t producing enough grain to meet the demand. Many of the smallholder farmers had five hectares of land but could only afford to cultivate two hectares. Our financing allowed them to operate at total capacity.
We built an ERP (Enterprise resource planning) system called WorkBench. It does everything from input sourcing and sales to loan administration and repayment. When a farmer wants to do any business with AFEX, we register them in WorkBench. If they want an input loan, we can disburse it and track it from inception to payment in WorkBench.
WorkBench has three different platforms, a mobile app, a desktop app, and a web app. We built the desktop and mobile app to work completely offline because most of these remote locations don’t have Internet access.
Our field extension officers (FEO) use the mobile app to go into the villages and farms. As they move around, the app searches for an internet connection. Once it finds one, it pushes whatever information is stored on the app to the cloud. The desktop app does the same thing for warehouse managers.
The web version of the system is what the head office staff uses. That’s where we approve loans and make payments. Our policy is that once a farmer brings gains to our warehouse and sells them, we pay them in t + 1.
We provide collateral management services for clients, and initially, 30,000+ metric tons of grain would sit in our warehouses doing nothing. We decided to securitize these commodities and make them available for retail investors to trade. We built ComX, an electronic platform where securitized agricultural assets are traded.
Trading on ComX is like trading on the stock market. Clients register, fund their wallets, and trade securities. ComX is also connected to WorkBench to ensure that every security on the trading platform has an underlying physical asset. In a couple of weeks, we’re releasing a new version of the platform that gives farmers the ability to buy and sell grains.
To run the exchange, we built a trading engine called Exchange Communication Network (ECN). The ECN is where the communication between ComX and WorkBench happens. It’s our order validation system. It stores all the client’s information, the amount of money in their wallet, and all transactions between the WorkBench and ComX system.
How is AFEX getting farmers included in the financial system?
Most of the farmers we work with don’t have a bank account. One of our goals, when we started, was to help farmers get out of poverty. If a farmer starts out dealing in tens of thousands, we want to do hundreds of thousands by year two. But to make that happen, we cannot deal with cash only.
If you want a bank account in Nigeria, you need a bank verification number (BVN). It’s an ID that uniquely identifies every customer in the banking system. The only organization that can register and provide BVNs to citizens is a government agency called Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS).
Getting a BVN is the most complicated part of setting up a bank account. Most banks have branches in these remote locations. We partnered with NIBSS to help register farmers for BVNs. Once farmers get their BVN, they can apply and be approved for a bank account within an hour or two.
Some farmers initially didn’t want a bank account because of cultural beliefs. We don’t have a problem with that, we’ll still run your operations via cash, but usually, after two or three months, when they see that people who have a bank account get their money faster, they’ll get an account.
What does your role as a CTO entail, and share your experience managing a team of 25 people?
So far, it’s been quite interesting. I joined the organization when they started digitizing. At first, the process was almost 80% manual with an off-the-shelf system that managed the trading. When I joined in 2018, it was three of us that started together. I was working solely on the desktop application. One colleague was working on the Web app and another on the mobile app.
We pioneered the technology and grew the team to what it is today. So it was easy for me to understand the landscape of our technology because I built it. As we grew, we split teams into different subunits. Today, we have three units under the Innovation Technology Departments:
- Product management: includes our designers and product managers.
- Software engineering: comprises of the frontend, backend, and DevOps.
- Data and machine learning: houses our data scientists and machine learning engineers.
Engineering is the most challenging subunit to manage because they are the largest, and what they do is quite challenging and changes every day. Fortunately, the person who heads Engineering was one of the people I started at AFEX with so he understands the landscape very well. And since I'm a software engineer, I understand what they need and how to communicate information to him and his team effectively.
We made the strategic decision to have UI/UX designers under product management. In most organizations today, the designer works with the engineering department. We decided this because our product managers work with the business to strategize and design new products, and we wanted the designers to be involved.
What do you believe are the keys to building successful software solutions for Africa?
Africa has a unique terrain, and one major mistake that we tend to make is seeing what’s happening overseas and trying to make the same thing work here. Yes, we can learn what’s happening there, but when we come back home to build solutions, we need to adapt them to our environment before trying to solve the problem.
Understand the business:
We disrupted the market with our digital solutions, so a lot of technology companies are coming out saying they also want to build something like ours. Not realizing that we didn’t come into the space and say we want to build technology solutions. We came into the space doing the core business. We worked with all of the players and learned the terrain.
When it was time to build the technology, our experience guided us. There were situations where even though it would work technologically, we said we couldn’t do it this way because it wouldn’t work given the context. You have to combine your business knowledge with your technology expertise to provide a solution that works.
Create an MVP:
Don’t go to the market with a full-blown product because the environment we work in is changing. As our government tries to bring education into every nook and cranny of the country, the exposure level of people we work with is changing with time.
Don’t build features A, B, C, D, and E and then release the product to the market. First, do a market survey to understand the most important, if it’s A and C, build that first and release it to the market. At the same time, have a prototype for B, D, and E so as you receive feedback to improve the A and C, you’ll be able to apply that knowledge to B, D, and E.
If you don’t, you’ll release an app that increases the number of apps coming out of Africa but doesn’t provide value to the marketplace because it doesn’t solve their problem.
Being in tech for over 10+ years, what advice do you have from other software developers?
Be a team player:
One thing I did early on was work on projects with 3 or 4 of my classmates. One person would be the team lead, someone else would be the lead designer, and the other person would be the lead developer. Then on the next project, we would alternate positions. By the time we started our careers, all of these qualities were inherent in us.
Understand the business & tech:
It’s not just tech; you need to understand the business that tech solves for. You need to understand how the business thrives and what they need to grow financially and operationally. Each sector is different, so you have to be able to tailor your solutions.
Understanding the tech ecosystem:
It’s not enough to be a great frontend engineer that only understands frontend but wants to lead a team of people with diverse expertise. You need to have knowledge of each of the different expertise to successfully lead them because, at some point, they will have a problem and need you to help them find a solution. You don’t need to write the code yourself, but when you have an idea of what’s happening, you can speak to the problem in a way that leads them to the technical solution.
What is one of the biggest challenges you face growing AFEX?
The unavailability of experienced engineers within the space is challenging. The number of resources we have access to is depreciating by the day. I come across developers who say, I’ve been a frontend engineer for five years or a backend engineer for three years, but when I interview them, they don’t have the knowledge of someone with six months of experience. It’s quite troublesome and disheartening.
Recognizing that we will need significant resources over the coming years, we are building a pipeline of talent now. We are training people to become designers, frontend engineers, backend engineers, and DevOps engineers. We’re training more than we need. We’ll absorb some of the talent, and the others will go into the marketplace equipped with skills.
I think every tech company in Africa should look at solving this problem. The different policies are not helping, but it’s a problem we can’t ignore if we want to keep technology abreast within this continent.
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