Africa is certainly the most improbable place to be talking about being the food granary of the globe. The continent is facing some of the most intractable economic and social challenges that are immensely curtailing its potential in every sphere imaginable. Agriculture is among the key of such sectors facing severest of constraints.
Poverty indicators emanating from the region make for some of the most depressing stories you will ever read anywhere in the world. Take for example food, the most basic of basic items in households. Many countries in Africa are some of the most food insecure.
This is despite the fact that agriculture is the key pillar of the continent’s economies, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where farming accounts for about 15 percent of total economic production or Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More fundamentally two-thirds of Africa’s population are engaging in farming activity.
Also, the continent is home to 60 percent of the world’s arable land that is waiting to be exploited. According to a 2016 report by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit organisation, farming is the source of 60 percent of all jobs on the continent. The World Bank projects that agriculture and agribusiness in Africa will grow to be a $1-trillion industry by 2030.
It’s therefore hard to explain how a farming continent is a net importer of food. Various researches indicate the continent ought to increase food production by 60 percent in the coming decade to meet these challenges.
When all is said and done, Africa a commands a huge agricultural potential. However, to attain its fill promise, the continent has a lot to contend with.
The question then is: Is the continent up to the task of first sufficiently feeding its population and then proceeding to meet the gargantuan role of being the food basket of the world?
Seeking answers by looking at what governments are doing do not inspire much hope. Most countries in the region hardly seem to get it right in rolling out appropriate policies that would spur agricultural takeoff. Farmers are largely left to their own devises, with most of them using outdated practices that persistently keep production depressingly low.
Budgets allocations for the sector are still a drop in the ocean, far less than what is needed to make agriculture – which is the mainstay of most countries’ economies yet a sleeping giant – to wake up from its slumber and live up to the huge promise it holds.
There is however a newfound hope. And this comes in the form of technology which promises to tear down the myriad barriers standing in the way of the sector’s potential. Mobile phones are increasingly become an integral part of farming tools. Several digital platforms, riding on the mobile phone, have sprouted in the last decade offering diverse forms of farm solutions.
These farming technologies range from the simple to somewhat complex. Some platforms provide weather, advisory, or planting information via SMS or apps. Some offer financial services comprising loans and insurance for farmers. Other platforms involve use of hi-tech innovations such machine learning, powerful big data analytics and satellite imagery.
All these technologies combine to provide valuable real-time set of agricultural information that can immensely transform both large and small scale farming. These innovations, experts say, have the potential to vastly improve farm productivity, help farmers deal with climate risks and greatly enhance earnings.
Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) and Dalberg Advisors, say there are about 400 different digital agriculture solutions with nearly 40 million registered farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The survey noted a yearly increase of more than 40 percent for both the number of registered farmers and the number of digital solutions, pointing to a robust outlook for digital uptake for agricultural solutions.
CTA director Michael Hailu holds the view that technology is an open secret that can significantly reshape the face of farming, by helping in achieving the twin objectives of maximising production while attracting tech-savvy youth into the sector.
His sentiments are echoed by Michael Tsan, a partner at Dalberg Advisors, a global strategy and policy advisory firm.
“Digitalisation for agriculture has the potential not just to support agricultural transformation in Africa but to do so sustainably and inclusively for Africa’s 250 million smallholder farmers and pastoralists,” notes Mr Tsan, who helps lead Dalberg Advisors’ access to finance, renewable energy, and program evaluation work in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa.
More than a third of the respondents in the study said they already used drones, field sensors, big data or machine learning. Sixty 60 percent of them said they planned to adopt these technologies in their activities in the next three years.
A number of studies have stated that adoption of various forms of technological innovations can push up agricultural yields by between 20 percent and 75percent, while earnings can witness a jump from 20 percent to 40 percent.
However, when more than one platforms are integrated and deployed in the service of farmers, the outlook is q rosier. Provision of a blend of solutions comprising advisory services, market linkages and digital finances is projected to boost production by a mouth-watering 168 percent.
With such capabilities of technology on African farms, the idea of the continent becoming the world’s food basket then begins to assume a viable and feasible proposition.
Some of the countries spearheading adoption of agritech in Africa are Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria.
CTA , a a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU), has invariably placed Kenya on top of the list of African countries in application of technology in agriculture. This is backed by Mckinsey research that states that Kenya accounts for 25 percent of all agritech startups.
Experts say Kenyan farmers can grow their incomes by between 8 percent and 80 percent if emerging technologies are ingeniously adopted.
It is easy to see why Kenya is blazing the trail in agritechs on the continent. Mobile penetration hit 100 percent in 2018, with active customer subscription standing at 46.6 million. This is according to data by Communications Authority of Kenya.
CTA says in its report that farming solutions have been adopted in at least 43 out of 49 Sub-Sahara African countries. More than 50 percent of these platforms, it says, are based in East Africa Community (EAC) and about 75 percent of farmers using the solutions are found in EAC, with Kenya at the fore forefront.
Kenya’s rapid adoption of mobile technology is, thus, providing a test-case on how digital innovations can help in addressing challenges that the agricultural sector faces in Africa, and help chart the way to making the continent a major source of food for the world.
Seeing the potential that digital platform can spur agricultural production, global tech giants have joined the train, deploying their set of technical skills and expertise among a section of African farmers. One of these firms is IBM which has rolled out a plan in which Kenyan farmers can use Internet of Things (IoT) and data on weather to forecast the best time to plant.
The World Bank is also a central player in Kenya’s agritech ecosystem, and has launched a platform to provide information as well as financial and market solutions.
So what are some of the major agritech drivers, seeking to transform farming in Kenya?
Twiga is involved in distribution for fresh and processed food, sourcing from more than 17,000 producers and delivering three times a week on average to over 8,000 retailers. Twiga’s digital platform and logistics network links retailers with farmers and food manufacturers, with the aim of cutting out inefficiencies and costly processes in transporting produce from farm to market. Twiga, which was launched in 2014, offer retailers access to quality fresh produce at comparatively lower cost.
Twiga is also tackling inefficiencies in the supply chain, helping to reduce food prices for consumers. Currently, between 30 and 50 percent of fresh produce is lost through poor post-harvest processes. Through investment in its supply chain, Twiga has reduced the level of food waste by up to 70 percent compared to the market averages.
Twiga covers a wide array of fresh produce including potatoes, onions, bananas, tomatoes and watermelons. The process food being distributed on the platform comprises maize flour, rice, juice, sugar, milk and cooking oil, milk.
M-shamba is an app that enables farmers to post in a database dates of specific events, after which they are able to receive notifications, telling them when to plant, weed and apply pesticides.
Calvince Okello, the creator of the app, which started as a school project at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2010, says it has helped farmers through provision of real-time information, which is indispensable in determining poor or high yields.
Okello was inspired by depressing news of famine ravaging some regions while other parts had surplus yet they had no idea where they could get the market. The innovator set about thinking about how to bridge both ends, and the product was an app that has signed up to12,000 farmers in Kenya and another 4,000 in the neighboring Uganda.
“I realised how lack of information flow had contributed to the problem,” he said.
DigiFarm is an integrated mobile platform that offers farmers convenient, one-stop access to a various products, including financial and credit services, quality farm products and customised information on farming best practices. DigiFarm helps agribusinesses and small holding farmers to easily share information and transact.
DigiFarm says its vision is to “make the smallholder farmer wealthier from the same piece of land” by equipping them with knowledge on best farming practices, quality inputs, access to financial services – such as credit and insurance- as well as access to markets
Another platform is Wefarm. Like the M-Shamba, its forte is availing timely and critical information to farmers. It ensures that users get tailored information using SMS on their simple phones. It is a peer-to-peer platform where farmers share knowledge, tips and skills among themselves. About 1.6 million farmers in Kenya and Uganda use the platform.
FarmersPride connects farmers via a mobile app with quality inputs. The platform created by Charles Munguti in 2018 ensures that suppliers on its platform are thoroughly vetted.
Munguti’s mission when he started was to connect agro-dealers with manufacturers of quality farm inputs. However, he later realised that farmers had to be integrated into his platform so that manufacturers can better understand their customers.
The platform connects small-scale farmers to manufacturers of agricultural inputs such as animal feed and fertilisers. Farmers buy supplies using mobile vouchers, and obtain discounts of between 10 percent and 20 percent. The app also provides data-driven stock management across the supply chains. This enable farmers to analyse their market share, and the performance of their products.
M-Farm Limited enhances communication between farmers and buyers. This hands farmers the power to determine the value of their crops. With information obtain from the platform, farmers can know when is the best time to plant in order to get the best prices. From the buyers’ end, the platform provides information on who is selling what, when and where and also helps them get the right quality product, at the right time and at the best price.
Taimba connects farmers to retailers. It sources produce from farmer Saccos at favourable prices and sell to retailers at comparatively lower prices. The aim of the platform is to cut wastage and increase farmers’ incomes. It also eliminates brokers who always seek to buy produce at the lowest prices.