Making progress one byte at a time

by Katrin Glatzel and Sheryl Hendriks

To celebrate this year’s Africa Day for Food and Nutrition Security (Oct. 30), here is a blog post for optimists. Over the past two decades we’ve seen widespread progress across Africa in overcoming the multiple obstacles to economic growth and eradicating poverty. The gradual transformation of Africa’s food systems has been key to this process. 

To sustain and further accelerate growth—particularly in the face of demographic changes, urbanization, shifting diets, climate change and protracted humanitarian crises—a new set of innovative solutions is urgently needed. Agriculture has long been a global frontier of modernization and innovation. Over the centuries, the sector has gone through several stages of reform, including the Green Revolution, agricultural mechanization and most recently digitalization. Each has transformed the way that our food is produced and consumed and reshaped the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers across the globe.

Digital technologies, tools, and services have mushroomed in the agriculture sector in recent years. Young entrepreneurs from Africa’s cities have flocked to rural areas, developing often ingenious solutions to some of the most pressing challenges. More broadly, digital technologies and services will play an increasingly central role for African countries in meeting their targets on poverty reduction, food security, and nutrition. For example, studies suggest that in developing countries, each additional 10% of internet penetration can lead to a 1.35% increase in per capita GDP growth.

The digitalization of Africa’s food system presents new opportunities for the use of digital and data-driven technologies at each segment of the agriculture value chain. These can guide and support decisions at the production level; on value chain optimization and on storage methods; and help farmers prevent food waste and loss at the harvest and post-harvest levels. Data from digitalization efforts can also be used to inform the design of policies for agricultural transformation.

Increasingly, digital technologies and services are also key to driving nutrition and health improvements. And rightly so. Despite the visible progress in many areas, reducing malnutrition—undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight and obesity—remains a massive global challenge. Limited access to information, particularly among women and vulnerable groups in remote areas, is a major barrier to the adoption of best nutrition practices. Digital technologies can remedy this problem, boosting awareness and knowledge about the importance of healthy diets from pregnancy onwards, and linking producers of nutritious foods with consumers who most need them.

One example is mNutrition, which targets women and young children to change child feeding and dietary practices. The initiative aims to create demand for nutrition and health-related services, establish timely and efficient data surveillance tools for key nutrition indicators, and promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture practices among 3 million people across 12 countries in Africa and Asia. Examples of the nutrition-sensitive interventions include the cultivation and consumption of more nutritious crops, as well improved livestock management and consumption of animal-based products. The mHealth service under mNutrition provides relevant, actionable messages via SMS in several African countries south of the Sahara. Crucially, about 81% of long-term mHealth users exclusively breastfed their babies for the first six months, while 69% of new users did so. 

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