By Noble Banadda
Digital innovation is reshaping industries and economies globally by positively disrupting existing business and operating models.
Africa’s rural areas, and smallholder farmers in particular, could greatly benefit from access to new technologies and reliable data. However, while Africa might have seen a rising level of mobile technology innovations and adoption in recent years, it continues to lag behind in technology development and creation. The reasons are multifaceted and vary from country to country.
Key benefits of digitalization include greater access to information and other services including finance and links to markets.
In essence, digitalization presents African governments the opportunity to leapfrog into smart agriculture value chains, thereby creating more productive, efficient and sustainable agricultural practices while generating wealth and improving livelihoods globally. This could include both emerging digital technologies such as Blockchain, Big Data, robotics, and the Internet of Things, as well as more low-tech, frugal innovations.
A new report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel highlights many promising digital tools and technologies emerging across Africa along the agricultural value chain. Entitled "Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s Food System with Digital Technologies," the report analyses the experiences of seven African countries at the forefront of the application of digital technologies through policy and institutional innovation. The countries analysed are: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.
It was launched at the Malabo Montpellier Panel Forum in Kigali, Rwanda where the Panel authors made recommendations for African governments and the private sector to take action.
Various African governments are already accelerating progress towards digitalizing their economies, through pragmatic policies, institutional innovation and a sound regulatory environment.
For example, Côte d’Ivoire is working with the country’s mobile operators to improve ICT access through an innovative public-private partnership called "One Citizen, One Computer, One Internet Connection." Kenya has invested nearly $20 million to build the capacity of youth in agribusiness by creating information hubs across the country. Senegal is facilitating the entry of new mobile network operators, with mobile connections developing rapidly as both 3G and 4G coverage are growing at almost 63 per cent a year.
The hope, of course, is that the successes of countries like these in terms of policy and institutional innovation can be replicated across the continent. The timing for this is opportune.
The value of urban food markets in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to more than triple by 2030, alongside a growing population, and Africans’ uptake of mobile phones is reaching a saturation point, with around three phones per four people.
Digital agriculture entrepreneurs, sometimes called “agripreneurs,” are already working to fill this demand. A selection of digital tools, applications and services are already making headway in transforming the African agriculture sector.
For instance, eSoko is a Ghanaian start-up that provides overall farm management support, helping farmers monitor and analyse their farming records via its data collection tool. Accessed via a smartphone app or eSoko’s website, the tool links farmers to advisory services, markets, market prices, and secure payments.
Hello Tractor also uses an app to connect tractor owners to farmers, making hiring services more accessible and affordable for farmers and allowing owners to better manage their machines on the farm.
Likewise, Kenyan start-up FarmDrive uses mobile phones, alternative data and machine learning to close the data gap that prevents financial institutions from lending to smallholder farmers, helping them build credit scores and reduce the risk of investment.
What is clear is that African governments must make digitalization an integral part of their agricultural policy and support the sector with public investment plans. They must also create a transparent regulatory environment that promotes an innovative and confident use of digital technologies and services while balancing the free-flow of data and information with privacy policies.
They can also develop digital innovation hubs to provide the innovation ecosystem that boosts digital literacy for farmers, extension agents, entrepreneurs and other value chain actors as well as developing locally suitable technologies and digital solutions.
Digital agriculture is an opportunity for both so-called “low tech” and cutting-edge digital solutions that meet the demands of all Africans in the agriculture value chain, including women and young people. Africa’s nascent digital transformation is its next big opportunity to leapfrog into a modern agricultural sector.