Seeds of change: WFP worked with a Nigerian startup to unlock smallholders’ potential

WFP Innovation Accelerator
4 min readJan 24, 2022

By Gulia Rakhimova and Owen Osaigbovo

Smallholder producers number over 500 million worldwide — including farmers, fishers, foresters, and herders. Despite producing a large portion of the world’s food, they are often food insecure themselves — growing and earning just enough income to make it to the next harvest. Photo: WFP/Favour Eze.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with abundant arable land. Agriculture employs two-thirds of the country’s workforce, and over 80 percent of farmers are smallholder producers, which include farmers, fishers, foresters, and herders. Despite being key food producers, smallholder farmers are increasingly facing barriers to profitability and experiencing socio-economic challenges themselves. Some of these barriers include: lack of access to productive inputs and credit, poor awareness of agricultural best practice such as post-harvest management, and lack of market access. These challenges limit smallholder livelihoods and paradoxically place them among the most vulnerable to food insecurity.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) supports smallholder farmers in overcoming systemic challenges and becoming competitive actors in global food systems. As part of these efforts, the WFP Innovation Accelerator, WFP’s Country Office in Nigeria and Thrive Agric, an agricultural company based in Nigeria, joined forces to help solve major problems facing smallholder farmers and broaden their business prospects.

The project’s participation in the Accelerator’s Sprint Programme uncovered key achievements and learnings from the pilot in Nigeria.

Sprinting from idea to impact

The Thrive Agric team at the WFP Innovation Bootcamp in February 2020. The WFP Innovation Accelerator’s bootcamps are often the first stop on the journey for innovation teams to dive deep into project challenges, develop solutions, and refine their project plans. Photo: WFP/Paul Guenther.

Thrive Agric is a tech driven agricultural company that facilitates smallholders’ access to finance, extension services and premium markets in Nigeria. Identified through the WFP Innovation Challenge, the Thrive Agric team participated in the WFP Innovation Bootcamp in February 2020 to refine their project plan, combining innovation techniques such as human-centered design with WFP’s deep-field knowledge.

Thrive Agric’s proposed project was pre-matched with the WFP Country Office in Nigeria because of its potential to contribute to ongoing efforts in supporting the farmers to produce high-quality grains and secure improved access to local markets. Throughout a week-long bootcamp programme, the team developed a strategic pilot roadmap and fine-tuned the initial proposal to account for Nigeria’s farming seasons.

The team went on to the WFP Sprint Programme, where they received funding and hands-on support for six months to implement the pilot project in WFP’s operations in Nigeria. Through a collaboration with WFP, Thrive Agric operated for the first time in northeast Nigeria, a very fertile region, though lacking farmers’ inputs and market access due to conflict and instability. Despite the constraints of COVID-19 and challenges it posed to the agricultural sector, the project was implemented in four local government areas of Adamawa State: Demsa, Mubi South, Fufure, and Song.

Enabling agriculture in Adamawa State

Thrive Agric works with smallholder farmers to help them become competitive players in local and international markets. Photo: WFP/Favour Eze.

Smallholder farmers in Nigeria’s Adamawa State tend to produce surplus grains such as rice, maize, white sorghum, and white beans. The Thrive Agric pilot aimed to bolster market access for these farmers by helping them aggregate their produce and sell to buyers. As a result, the project enabled the sale of 6,400 metric tonnes of high-quality grains from 11,250 smallholder farmers, exceeding the pilot target by 30 percent.

WFP’s pilot project enabled collaboration between Thrive Agric, the Adamawa State Ministry of Agriculture, and other government extension agents and non-governmental stakeholders. During this period, Thrive Agric’s agent network helped farmers obtain the most suitable farm inputs and machinery, and receive guidance from agricultural extension workers to improve their crops. Field agents visited farms on a regular basis to track crop data, farm size, estimated yield, and other information using a mobile app, which helped farmers monitor their progress and ensure the quality of their products. Following harvest, Thrive Agric assisted farmers in securing access to local markets that offered premium rates for their commodities, allowing them to expand their business opportunities.

Thrive Agric hired and trained 100 field agents in the State of Adamawa and onboarded around 12,000 smallholder farmers. Photo: WFP/Favour Eze.

The Thrive Agric pilot in Adamawa State illustrates that life-changing activities such as agricultural market development work may be implemented even in fragile contexts to complement life-saving humanitarian operations.

By training young people to work as field agents to assist farmers, the project created new job prospects for rural youth. Moreover, smallholder farmers increased their incomes by up to 25 percent, thanks to the premium pricing attached to their crops. This goes a long way towards demonstrating the farmers’ ability to produce premium crops and compete in profitable markets.

Efforts like this help transform today’s recipients of food assistance into tomorrow’s food suppliers, while also strengthening local food systems.

Learn more about innovation in WFP.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.