From bootstrapped beginnings, a Singaporean start-up has its sights set on Series A fundraising this year, on the back of announcing a major public-private partnership with Nigeria to bring halal food production onto blockchain through its business-to-business vending platform.
OneAgrix, which was conceived in 2015 and born two years ago, announced in January a Nigerian government-endorsed deal to encourage more food producers in the country to trade internationally at a time when food safety is under the spotlight.
The platform stores records, including halal documents, digitally to allow buyers to check a product’s certification before ordering it in bulk. In the near future, the service will also allow products to be tracked across the extent of their value chain.
“You look at Alibaba or Amazon; we want to be the halal version of that,” OneAgrix’s co-founder and chief executive Diana Sabrain told Salaam Gateway.
She says disruption by the pandemic over the last year has caused B2B suppliers to change the way they look at bulk purchasing. Since procurement officers have largely been unable to perform on-site visits, they have been forced to order online, similar to how consumers have been turning to e-commerce for home deliveries.
In this way, halal customers have been unable to check physically for halal compliance, leading OneAgrix to flourish. This is because it requires its vendors to display their certificates on its platform. The veracity of these is immutably preserved using blockchain’s distributed ledger system, said Diana.
Among the companies using OneAgrix is Nestlé Malaysia, which has for some time been battling the spread of fake products being marketed online under its name.
NIGERIA SERIOUS ABOUT TRACEABILITY
The Nigeria deal is important for the start-up. The west African nation is one of the 54 signatories of the African Continental Free Trade Area pact (AfCFTA) that commenced at the start of this year.
This agreement is especially important for Africa with regards the European Union, which accounts for almost a third of the continent’s trade.
“Africa knows that, with the China-U.S. trade war, China-Canada trade war—not only with China’s trade wars, but globally—everyone is pointing to them. It has vast land resources and untapped opportunities. So Nigeria, upon the AfCFTA, knows that digital transformation is needed,” said Diana.
OneAgrix will bridge the gap between African suppliers and international buyers by providing a platform for the pilot Nigeria Feeds the World Initiative, which has the backing of President Muhammadu Buhari. The programme was set up for the country to showcase its produce to the wider world.
“We asked them, ‘Since you guys have a lot of agricultural produce, why don’t you create a value-added sector to set the standards and put more traceability in it?’. The EU wants to trade with Africa, but they don’t want food products that are barely traceable. There’s a disconnect there,” said Diana.
“They said to us, since you have this integrated thing, let’s do it together. It might look like Nigeria is just focused on trade, but traceability is one of the things they want to share. They are serious about doing more trade with the EU, and the EU is an incredible opportunity.”
Nevertheless, there have been longstanding concerns in Europe over the safety of produce from Africa and the ability of its producers to add value to their goods.
“In the agrifood sector, as for halal, Africa knows it has a lot of way to catch up, and food safety and integrity issues need to be cleared up,” Diana continued.
“Whether foods are real and if they are contaminated have never really been issues before, but traceability has become more important since the pandemic. More end-consumers want to know not only where their food comes from but if it’s safe. This question is now at the back of buyers minds.”
To address this, the start-up has called on its recently announced strategic partnership with INEXTO, a global tracking systems and brand protection solutions provider, to develop a digital traceability solution that will address issues such as secure serialisation, track and trace, authentication and the interoperability of halal supply chains.
“Africa is very important to us because we really want to work with the farmer. We want to empower the common people, make it so the farmers don’t feel exploited,” Diana added.
Things are falling into place for OneAgrix.
During her days as an agricultural commodities trader, Diana realised from visiting farms across Southeast Asia that there was the need to bring technology to a largely analogue industry. But she had to wait until the farming sector had sufficiently digitalised to make her move.
It wasn’t until 2018, when payments and logistics could finally be completed online for B2B orders, that she decided to launch OneAgrix.
Before that, bulk-order e-commerce was seen just “as a place to match-make but not a place to pay”. Doing so was not as simple as just swiping a card; there were letters of credit and interbank transfers that needed to be negotiated. “There just wasn’t a safe way of making B2B payments,” Diana explained.
“We realised at the time that there was no point launching OneAgrix until things advanced. We waited and waited and then we got our breakthrough through escrow.com, which essentially allowed us to operate as an e-commerce business. We messaged them to see if we could work together and they said sure,” said Diana. “It gave us our start.”
The start-up was bootstrapped at the time, and remained that way until the first angel investors came onboard, about a year and a half after OneAgrix formally launched. These included executives from Proctor & Gamble, Rio Tinto and IBM.
“Every time we tell people we were bootstrapped, nobody believes us. All the deals we’ve done are fitting for a million-dollar company. Right now we are raising our series A. It’s time because the ecosystem is being built,” Diana said.
“We realised after we launched that traceability was important, but back then, every time we talked about traceability and trust, people would say, ‘we don’t care, we just want to buy the cheapest food available.’.
“Then COVID-19 happened, and people started telling me, maybe we should start tracing our food because it’s affecting our business and consumers are expecting to know if it is certified and where it comes from.”
Having deliberately not rushed OneAgrix’s platform and taking a methodical approach to developing it and signing deals, Diana said investors have been taking notice. This interest, she hopes, will become apparent this year with series A funding.
“Series A is very important for us because we’ve already been through the process of building and now we want to scale.”
Could OneAgrix reach billion-dollar valuation, at some point? “In sha’ Allah,” said Diana.
“People ask, ‘Are you going to IPO?’. If it suits us, maybe in the next five or six years—we are open to it.
“My team’s ambition is to be a key infrastructure-builder in the industry. Our strategy is to protect the integrity of halal. I know it’s ambitious, but who is going to solve it?”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])
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