“Digital agriculture” means different things to different people. But for most of us, it means opportunity— opportunity to create new products and services that match farmers with businesses and consumers. This rings loudly in Africa, where digital ecosystems are rapidly emerging throughout the agri-food system, offering smallholder farmers, food-insecure consumers, and nascent agribusinesses with data, tools, and services that did not exist a decade ago.
In many African markets on the farm and along the value chain, digital agriculture solutions are being piloted or scaled to provide smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs with a dizzying array of products and services to boost agricultural production and improve their livelihoods: forecasts of weather, pest, and disease threats; services for savings, loans, and insurance; the ”uberization” of mechanization services; and platforms to grade, transport, and sell farm produce. The entrepreneurial spirit in Africa’s emerging digital agriculture ecosystem is cause for excitement and optimism.
But when asked what governments can do to accelerate digital agriculture, our initial excitement often wanes. Of course, we need governments to build the infrastructure required for a digital economy, for example, by allocating and licensing bandwidth in the electromagnetic spectrum so mobile phone networks can expand to the furthest rural corners of a country. But after that, should governments step back, encourage private entrepreneurs to step in, and let market forces flourish with as little public involvement as possible? For many, that seems to be the conventional wisdom.
A report released earlier this year by the Malabo Montpellier Panel (the “MaMo Panel”) digs deeper into this issue, highlighting what some governments across the continent are doing to successfully and sustainably accelerate digital agriculture in Africa. It brings a new perspective to prior conversations on the topic from the Grameen Foundation on digital farmer profiles, the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture on clearinghouse on digital innovations in food systems, and many others.