The future of agriculture in Africa is in digital disruption

The novel COVID-19 has revealed how vulnerable Af- rican agriculture and food chains are to disruptions, as a result of the continent’s significant dependency on food imports. While COVID-19 occasioned a sharp decline in tech investments in Africa, the new normal of social or physical distancing has created an opportunity for digital solutions in the agriculture sector.

According to the GSMA 2020 Digital Agriculture Maps, there are 437 in- formation and communications technology and digital solutions actively operating in the African agriculture space. The top 15 digital agriculture services currently being deployed in the continent have over 22 million recorded users, rep- resenting 70 per cent of the total of number of active users.

Eleven of these top 15 primarily provide advisory services. With a fast-growing population, ex- panding middle class, rapid urbanisation, evolving dietary preferences and a consumer-oriented culture, Africa’s demand for food will increase exponentially. “Concomitant to the increasing demand for food, there is a need for a more efficient food production process, to reduce wastage at all stages of the agricultural value chain to enable farmers to increase yields, access markets and make fair returns, while still ensuring lower prices for consumers,” says Kemi Afun-Ogidan, Principal Agri- business Officer, and the Coordinator of the Feed Africa Digital Agriculture Flag- ship at the African Development Bank.

According to Afun-Ogidan, conventional approaches to food production are no longer able to deliver on these goals. Technological inno- vations and digitisation offer an opportunity to leapfrog the trans- formation of African agriculture. “Using satellite data, we can monitor crop health, soil quality, and water and fertiliser usage.”

Sensors, automation, analytics, and machine learning allow for more precise agricultural opera- tions adapted to each specific lo- cation. Digital payment systems, index insurance and mobile plat- forms help connect farmers to market and financial services. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other innovative frontier technologies are improving the efficiency and transparency of transactions and exchanges along the agro-food value chain.

3D-printed and lab-grown foods have opened up possibilities for more sustainable and ethical food chains, which should put less pressure on environmental resources. Africa has already been experiencing rapid digitalisation of many sectors, mostly due to the rise in mobile phone penetration, which has also led to in- creasing internet usage. There is also a rapid growth of start-ups and tech firms delivering ser- vices to the agricultural sector.

But digital solutions are not yet reaching poor, rural and small- scale farmers and value chain actors, especially women farmers who are most disadvantaged. Digital solutions in the agriculture sector are currently outpacing the readiness to adopt them, and the sector lacks an important layer of enabling middleware infrastructure. This is mostly be- cause African agriculture is pre- dominantly smallholder driven.

The requirements for farmer registries, digital agronomy data, soil mapping, pest and disease surveillance, weather data, market data, technical support and advisory services, currently make it difficult for digital solutions to be scaled at an affordable cost. Investment in data infrastructure for millions of farmers can be prohibitively costly and time consuming for private tech innovators. As a result, 54 per cent of the digital agriculture solutions deployed in Africa are used by commercial agribusiness who can afford the services.

Private sector technology innovators are unable to deliver services to smallholders at scale, while remaining profitable. There is also the risk of widening the digital-gender divide if the benefits of private sector-driven innovations are not shared equitably, especially for women and smallholder farmers who are the weakest and often voice- less actors in the value chain. Recognising that the future of agriculture is data-enabled, the AfDB launched the Digital Agriculture Flagship in 2019 to support African governments to put in place enablers for the growth of digital agriculture.

The Digital Agriculture Flag- ship leverages the Bank’s continent-wide reach and influence in the public sector to develop interventions that drive the digitalization of agriculture. These range from investing in hard and soft infrastructure, to helping governments foster supportive environments for digital agriculture. A focus here is the challenge of solving last-mile connections how governments can deliver digitalisation as a public good at a reasonable cost to everyone.

The Bank is also collaborating with private innovators to improve appropriate delivery mod- els needed to deploy and scale context-relevant, affordable and sustainable digital solutions for the smallholder farmers. To achieve scale in Africa and ensure that digital technologies reach and benefit every last farmer, requires a policy and regulatory framework that enables innovation to thrive.

Governments also need to invest in digital infrastructure and technology. Lastly, education and skills development are critical to further unlock the opportunities in digital agriculture. The right ecosystem will help un- lock investment, making the future of the agricultural sec- tor abound with possibilities