Growing up on a farm in Co Clare made John Garvey very aware of the many demands on farmers' time. Buying supplies is just one of them and although e-commerce has made life easier, Garvey says current online shopping channels "lack the personal connection and simplicity that busy farmers need".
In 2014 Garvey began toying with an idea to address this and it has since become FarmHedge, a smartphone-based technology that helps farmers buy supplies with minimum hassle at a good price.
FarmHedge has a panel of suppliers who get a real-time alert when a farmer searches online for an item. They then use the app to quote for it, offering their best terms. In addition, suppliers can use the platform to pitch special offers either to individuals or groups of farmers. This is quite different to the existing online agribusiness model which is communal and essentially a one size fits all marketplace. “We believe our solution removes the barriers to using technology in agribusiness transactions and is a private, secure, and very user-friendly system,” Garvey says.
“I wanted to build a mobile app that farmers could use for a whole range of activities, whether this is booking a delivery of animal feed or finding a broken part for a machine,” he adds.
“Our app does two things: it gives farmers a highly-personalised shopping experience that saves them time and effort, and it gives agribusiness companies an easy way to build a strong digital presence without any new software or training required. We are also building partnerships with manufacturers and wholesalers so that they can connect with agribusiness companies on the same system.”
Garvey has a PhD in finance and is a senior lecturer in risk management at the University of Limerick. "I'm interested in how information flows through market systems and I wanted to apply my research expertise in financial markets to the agribusiness sector with a view to lowering transaction costs for both farmers and suppliers," he says.
Garvey received a €200,000 commercialisation grant from Enterprise Ireland in 2014 to start work on the idea and by 2015 he had a working version of the app. "I think it looked pretty ugly but people could see enough to understand the value proposition," he says.
"The reaction was very positive and at that point I knew I needed to find someone with technical expertise to drive the project forward with me. That person is my co-founder and the company's CTO, Bernardino Frola. "
Roughly 18 months ago FarmHedge beat off stiff competition from over 250 European companies to land a place on a German-based agricultural accelerator run jointly by two big European agribusiness companies, RWA and BAYWA. Impressed by FarmHedge’s proposition, they subsequently invested €450,000 in the company for a minority stake.
The founders were delighted with the cash but even more significantly the tie-up gave them access to over 120,000 farmers across Europe. Farmers use the app for free and FarmHedge makes its money by charging a flat license fee to agribusinesses using its system.
FarmHedge, which is a spin-out from the University of Limerick, has been commercially active since the end of last year and now has customers in Ireland, Austria and Germany where the app is being used by farmers not only to buy goods but also to sell their crops. "We will be operational in Hungary from June and are steadily building our business in Ireland," Garvey says.
“We have a database of around 1,500 Irish farmers and about 500 of them are active users. In Ireland, we also make the alerting system available to feed suppliers to help them co-ordinate bulk concentrate deliveries.”
FarmHedge currently employs three people full-time and up to five contractors. Following a funding round planned for later this year, Garvey says more jobs will be coming on stream at the company.