How can agtech live up to the hype in Africa?
By Sara Jerving (Devex)
A man uses a drone on a tomato farm in Côte d'Ivoire. Photo by: REUTERS / Luc Gnago
ACCRA, Ghana — Technological solutions to the agriculture sector’s challenges are on the rise in Africa — but can farmers and others in the sector actually use these to transform the continent into an agricultural powerhouse?
Politicians, farmers, scientists, NGOs, and donor representatives met in Ghana last week at the African Green Revolution Forum to debate the role that new technologies could play in helping the continent reach its agricultural potential.
Africa has about 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. Despite this, it is a net importer of food, with farmers across the continent suffering from low crop yields and struggling to access markets. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this, disrupting growing seasons, fueling droughts, and accelerating soil erosion.
Some are looking to digital innovations, such as the use of mobile phone applications, drones, and artificial intelligence, to help tackle these issues. But forum attendees said that companies and organizations that offer these innovations to the continent’s farmers need to do so with caution.
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“There is tremendous potential we’ve seen, but ‘potential’ is the key word,” said Nick Austin, director of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “How do we realize that potential, particularly in a way that reaches those that are the hardest to reach? How do we separate the hype from the reality?”
Approach with caution
Farmers across the continent are benefiting from new technologies for agriculture programs. Drones can assess crop damage and then spot-target those areas, reducing overall pesticide use. Blockchain can be used to help build credit scores for farmers to access finance. These technologies have also been used for national farmer registration, soil mapping, and irrigation system management.
A recent report from the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU, or CTA, found that the market for digital services that support African smallholders could be worth more than $2.5 billion. The study found nearly 400 different digital agriculture solutions across the continent — a number that is rapidly growing — and 33.1 million registered users of these services, with 42% of them considered “engaged” users.
But while these figures provide an optimistic picture of the potential these solutions hold, questions over whether they can lead to upward mobility for Africa’s smallholder farmers remain.
There is much criticism that many of these digital solutions were developed without farmers’ input. “One of the major failures of these solutions is that people just develop digital solutions without understanding the actual needs of farmers,” said Michael Hailu, director of CTA.
Some also say they could worsen inequalities. For example, the CTA report found that only a quarter of users of digital agricultural solutions were women, and that while the average age of an African farmer is 60, two-thirds of registered users of these technologies are under 35.
“If we are not careful and if we are not intentional, the digital technologies that we are pushing could actually do more harm than good by exacerbating already existing gender inequalities,” said Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, director of African women in agricultural research at the Malabo Montpellier Panel.
As a result, targeted efforts to increase digital literacy of these groups are crucial, said Dr. Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
Forum attendees also discussed the need to use high-level tech solutions only when necessary. For example, organizations should avoid using blockchain when standard databases already provide an effective solution, said Henk van Cann, co-founder of the Blockchain Workspace. Blockchain technologies, which allow for verification of information from multiple users, is ideal for situations where mistrust is present. This includes recording transactions between smallholder farmers, agro-dealers, food processors, and retailers.
“Beware of the hype. A lot of people are trying, maybe ignorantly, maybe deliberately, to make a lot of money off of blockchain,” said van Cann. “That’s not a good thing. We should be very strict with the true innovative value of it.”
When tech solutions are seen as an appropriate tool, an enabling environment is key to ensuring their efficacy, said panelists at the forum. This includes creating strong digital strategies at the national level.
“What we’ve found in the research that we’ve been doing in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, is that first you need the commitment of governments and the regulatory environment. The role of government is really to create the enabling conditions, then the private sector can take advantage of opportunities that are offered,” said Dr. Heike Baumüller, senior researcher at the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn.
Ghana is one of the top countries on the continent developing and using these digital solutions, according to the CTA report. Key to the country’s success, according to Dr. Rose Omari, senior research scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research of Ghana, is that the government has a clear digital strategy and has worked to create a conducive policy environment for tech start-ups to succeed, including tax incentives. There are also innovation spaces across the county, where start-ups are trained and helped to grow, and a strong donor community supporting them.
Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Ghana’s Minister of Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, also highlighted the importance of cybersecurity and ensuring that the data farmers share with companies is protected.
Getting the right ICT infrastructure in place, such as strong national fiber networks, is also crucial, Baumüller said.
“If you don’t have the infrastructure, there won’t be digitalization in any sector. You need to reduce costs, improve the quality and make sure that it reaches all the areas,” she said.
Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of agriculture experts, recently published a report that laid out recommendations for governments and the private sector in creating enabling environments. The report includes putting digitalization at the core of national agricultural strategies, creating regulatory environments that promote development of digital technologies and limit risks for companies, strengthening digital skills development for farmers, increasing investment in research and development, and investing in infrastructure in remote areas.