Africa’s demand for food is growing. Between 2010 and 2030, the total worth of its food industry is projected to hit the $1 trillion mark. While existing technologies like improved seeds and fertilizers will be critical to meeting this demand, Africa’s farmers will need additional new tools to improve yields and get their goods to market. Digitalisation can deliver these tools.
Across the continent, we know farmers are already applying these digital technologies to learn new skills, receive and deliver services, and connect themselves across widely dispersed geographic areas. There is great hope that this can drive Africa’s agricultural transformation and do so at a lower cost and sooner.
One area that has recorded unprecedented growth is in mobile telephony. In 2017, the number of mobile phone connections on the continent was around 747 million, representing a 75% penetration rate, compared to 102% in Asia-Pacific and 104% in Latin America.
Efforts to improve digital access are already having an effect, with the price for mobile internet in Africa dropping by 30% since 2015. Encouragingly, even smallholder farmers in rural areas across the continent are getting connected. This can only be welcome news as it has been shown that each 10% rise in internet penetration can lead to a 1.35% rise in GDP growth in developing countries.
For instance, improving access to mobile phones could have huge effects in terms of empowering women farmers. In 2017, sub-Saharan Africa’s women were 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men and 25% less likely to have internet access. It is estimated that levelling this gap could improve agricultural production by up to 4%, decreasing the number of Africa’s hungry people by up to 17%.
The benefits of agricultural digitalisation will need governments to help drive private sector investment in areas as diverse as production, postharvest handling, market access, finance and supply chain management. To do this, three things will be required.
First, African governments must create a fair, transparent and smart regulatory environment that consumers and service providers can both have confidence in. Second, they must adopt national digital agriculture strategies, coupled with public investment plans. Finally, they must prioritise high-quality, skilled-based digital education, especially amongst young people. The benefits of doing so can be profound.
Countries that have adopted such strategies are already seeing the benefits. Take Rwanda as an example. Since 2000, Rwanda’s government has embraced an ambitious digital agenda to achieve a full digital economy by 2020. With agriculture accounting for around four-fifths of Rwanda’s employment and a third of its GDP, agricultural digitalisation promises to bring nothing short of a total economic transformation to the country.
The Global Innovation Index has praised Rwanda’s work to improve digital penetration of the economy, heralding it as an innovation achiever. Rwanda already has helped 93% of its population gain access to a 3G network. It is one of the fastest-growing African economies and is also one of the most popular countries for tech investors in sub-Saharan Africa, receiving $36.7 million in start-up investments in 2017.
Rwanda is just one example of how the continent is preparing itself to leapfrog into modern agricultural practices, by ensuring the right enabling environment is in place. African e-entrepreneurs are already well on their way towards transforming its agricultural sector through digitalisation, as outlined in a new report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel, on which I sit.
Digital services are becoming commonplace – offered by many start-ups that have emerged across Africa. For example, e-Soko 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 e-Soko’s website, the tool links farmers to advisory services, markets, market prices and secure payments.
Elsewhere, Nigeria-based FarmCrowdy is an online platform offers farmers extension advice and enables them to access credit directly from an investor, who in return earns a share of the post-harvest profit.
The digital era offers many new innovations and breakthroughs – seemingly every year – that will allow the African continent to get ahead of the curve, and more efficiently and sustainably unlock the full potential of its smallholder farmers and agribusiness sector.
This is not simply a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ although newer technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, remote sensing, robotics and big data make the future much more exciting. Progress will be greatest for those who learn to bring the two together.
Muhammadou M.O. Kah is a Member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel and Professor of Information Technology and Computing at The American University of Nigeria.