Fund a farmer, make a profit! Thus, says Thrive Agric, a popular AgriTech company that crowdsources funds from investors in exchange for a profit. The business model appears simple and easy for any basic investor to understand.
When you invest through them, they pool your funds along with other investors and then invest the collective sums in farms across the country. When the farmers harvest, they sell the farm produce at a profit, receive the cash, and split among investors who contributed to the pool. The company keeps a commission for itself. It all makes business sense, except for one thorny challenge – It is highly risky.
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Last week, a Twitter user posted a tweet demanding a refund of his investment in Thrive Agric – almost a million naira. The company lamented that they could not pay him, because they had experienced losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The investor was taking none of the excuses, resulting in a name and shame on twitter that has since gone viral.
AgriTech Investments as they have come to be known has gained popularity as a viable investment option for Nigerians, who are still afraid of investing in the stock market. The largely unregulated sector leverages technology, an easy and relatable business model, and the promise of a mouth-watering return to yield-hungry investors. What they however do not reveal loud enough is just how risky the investment is.
Farming in a country like Nigeria is a highly risky venture that relies on a value chain that is fragmented, full of middlemen, and largely inefficient. Nigeria’s average yield per hectare is one of the lowest in the world, largely due to lack of farming inputs such as fertilizer, irrigation, and insecurity.
AgriTech firms like Thrive Agric face these risks when they pool money from investors and pass on to farmers. Though part of their role in the investment scheme includes monitoring how the funds are utilized by farmers, they have no control over several risk factors such as the impact of COVID-19, which they alluded to as the challenges for not being able to pay investors.
Perhaps, if they disclose the inherent risks in the business, investors will be better informed and size up their risk against the returns. A cursory look at the company’s website reveals there is nowhere that it is mentioned that there is a risk of not getting all or part of your money when you invest. It probably would ruin the pitch if they did.
This is why when you visit their website and that of their competitors like Farmcrowdy (who pioneered this business) what you see are testimonials of just how well the investments are doing. You could argue that they had not defaulted in any of their previous rounds, so there was no need to say otherwise.
However, alerting investors about the inherent risks in a crowdsource investment scheme is not only responsible but a matter of best practice and compliance. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), noted this in its draft Exposure on Proposed News Rules guiding crowdfunding. Section 9a (iv) states that the crowdfunding company is expected to share a general risk warning on participating in funding through the company’s platform.
It also requires in Section 14 that they must publish on their website that “Investing through an online portal is risky and Issuers raising funds through the portal include new or rapidly growing ventures,” and that “Investment in the businesses hosted on the portal is very speculative and carries high risks; Investors may lose their entire investment and must be in a position to bear this risk without undue hardship.” This proposed compliance requirement is not been done by most AgriTech firms.
If this had been published on its website and duly communicated to its potential investors, we may have avoided the embarrassing and reputation damaging question that any fund manager wants to avoid – “Where is my money?”, especially if they don’t have it.