With nearly four million cases worldwide, the impacts of COVID-19 have been devastating. Particularly in low and middle-income countries, the effects have had significant social and economic impacts, and have disproportionately impacted those most vulnerable. Due to government shutdowns, enterprises have been left struggling to deal with new operational and financial challenges.
In Bangladesh, the once bustling streets of Dhaka are eerily quiet as citizens are staying at home. There have been tremendous efforts from the Government, the United Nations, civil society organizations and non-government organizations in trying to minimize the spread of the virus and deal with the economic consequences. Another important player is the private sector, especially the vibrant start-up culture in the country.
Any successful start-up needs to be agile and be able to identify opportunities where others see barriers. This becomes even more crucial in times of crisis where flexibility is critical. In Bangladesh, the FinTech company iFarmer is one of the many start-ups that is showing this agility by securing a deal with an e-commerce platform in less than five days.
In 2019, the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) launched the Women MSME FinTech Innovation Fund. This Innovation Fund supported iFarmer to enable access to finance and markets for micro, small and medium sized farm enterprises.
iFarmer works with verified and trained partner farmers, offering them advisory services and then connects the farm produce to B2B clients. At the end of the farming cycle the profit is shared with the farmers and farm investors.
iFarmer was the winner of Seedstars Bangladesh in 2019 and was also selected as the "Start-up with the Most Social Impact" by the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangladesh in 2018. In 2020, iFarmer is investing in blockchain and a farmer’s credit model to ensure better access to finance for farmers, improved farm traceability, and a more efficient supply chain of farm produce.
Before the pandemic, the Innovation Fund was supporting the iFarmer digital app to create a profit-sharing model between urban investors and rural women farm entrepreneurs that involves the purchase and management of livestock. After successful livestock management (raising and selling cattle), the investor(s) and woman entrepreneur share the profits, while iFarmer collects a management fee. Given the success of the livestock revenue sharing model and supply chain created, iFarmer began working with vegetable and fruit farmers and was planning to add additional products in late 2020.
This innovative business model not only creates an additional source of income for rural women, it also creates a profitable and socially impactful investment option for investors.
Since the pandemic, iFarmer had to adjust and speed up its plans. For livestock farmers, the transport and sale of cattle has become difficult. Currently, iFarmer is consulting with farmers and the Government, via mobile meetings, to identify potential avenues to safely sell cattle. For farmers on the iFarmer platform that have no alternative source of income, iFarmer is providing temporary assistance, such as basic food supplies.
The stay at home measures have created a new opportunity for home delivery of vegetables. In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, Bangladesh has restricted movement and access to areas where large numbers of people can gather. This includes the wholesale marketplace where people buy vegetables and food items, such as Karwan Bazaar, the largest market in the country. With limited access to these markets, people need another method to purchase food items.
This is where digital technology shows its potential.
iFarmer introduced vegetable products on its platform for farmers seeking a new revenue source. Using the iFarmer platform, vegetable farmers can access crowdfunding resources to grow and sell vegetables.
In a remarkable speed of only five days, iFarmer partnered with Priyoshop.com, an e-commerce platform, to sell vegetable items on their platform (a first ever). iFarmer also partnered with Truck Lagbe, a logistics start-up, to transport vegetable items from farmers to Priyoshop.com warehouses. Customers can order, for delivery, vegetable items from Priyoshop.com that are supplied by iFarmer farmers. Setting up this new supply chain mechanism would normally take months of negotiation. Yet it was accomplished in a fraction of the time in order to respond to a critical and immediate need.
“Unprecedented times like this asks for immediate response and action. There is little time to think, analyse and then act. We have to act, learn, and adapt on the fly. Who else knows this better than start-ups? It took iFarmer 5 days to design a supply chain mechanism to procure vegetables from farmers; only a couple of days for Priyoshop.com to add fresh vegetables and groceries on their platform; and a couple of calls for Truck Lagbe to get on board”
This adapted approach from iFarmer meets a critical need for grocery delivery, while supporting women farmers in finding new sources of income. It is a testament to the agility of start-ups and their role in finding innovative ways to operate in an emergency context. iFarmer intends to invest in building a data driven, efficient, and inclusive supply chain of fresh produce and is in talks to partner with other online groceries and services. UNCDF and ESCAP are now exploring opportunities to extend financial support to iFarmer in scaling up this initiative.
In addition, iFarmer will seek opportunities to supply to “super shops” and retail grocery stores, giving them the access to quality, low cost fresh farm produce directly from farmers.
About the Women MSME Fintech Fund
This fund is part of a regional programme ‘Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship: Creating a Gender-Responsive Entrepreneurial Ecosystem’ funded by the Government of Canada and implemented by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in partnership with the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). The programme aims to accelerate women entrepreneurs in the Asia-Pacific region through addressing challenges faced at three levels: enabling policy environment, access to finance and use of ICT for entrepreneurship. Funding support is also provided by the Dutch entrepreneurial development bank (FMO) and Visa Inc. The Innovation Fund is hosted by UNCDF’s Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations (SHIFT) in ASEAN programme, supported by the Australian Government.
About the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)
ESCAP serves as the United Nations’ regional hub promoting cooperation among countries to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. The largest regional intergovernmental platform with 53 Member States and 9 Associate Members, ESCAP has emerged as a strong regional think-tank offering countries sound analytical products that shed insight into the evolving economic, social and environmental dynamics of the region. The Commission’s strategic focus is to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which it does by reinforcing and deepening regional cooperation and integration to advance connectivity, financial cooperation and market integration. ESCAP’s research and analysis coupled with its policy advisory services, capacity building and technical assistance to governments aims to support countries’ sustainable and inclusive development ambitions.
About the United Nations Capital Development Fund
The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs).
UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development.
UNCDF pursues innovative financing solutions through: (1) financial inclusion, which expands the opportunities for individuals, households, and small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in the local economy, while also providing differentiated products for women and men so they can climb out of poverty and manage their financial lives; (2) local development finance, which shows how fiscal decentralization, innovative municipal finance, and structured project finance can drive public and private funding that underpins local economic expansion, women’s economic empowerment, climate adaptation, and sustainable development; and (3) a least developed countries investment platform that deploys a tailored set of financial instruments to a growing pipeline of impactful projects in the “missing middle".
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.