Digital innovations could transform African rural areas and agriculture while tackling many of the continent’s other emerging challenges, from youth unemployment, food insecurity and the need for further economic growth, a new report has suggested.
Statistics show that around 60 percent of the African population is under the age of 24. At the same time, one in four Africans remains food insecure, the highest rate in the world.
“These conditions present a perfect opportunity for digital agriculture to scale up across rural Africa,” says Prof. Joachim von Braun, co-chair of the Malabo Montpellier Panel. “It is the many emerging digital tools targeting agriculture and services that will generate attractive jobs on the continent in coming decades.”
Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s Food System with Digital Technologies launches today on June 25 during the Malabo Montpellier Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, where participants are discussing the rising level of mobile technology adoption in Africa in recent years, as well as their current limitations and priorities for future action.
Investment in last-mile infrastructure
The report calls for investments targeting so-called “last-mile” infrastructure to bridge the urban-rural digital divide, including connections to the electrical grid, reliable telecommunications and internet connection. It also recommends the establishment of digital innovation hubs as well as fiscal incentives, including lower import duties initially, to facilitate market entry and the import of technologies until local markets are developed. These include long-term finance, affordable (mobile) internet, fair competition standards, and lower overall prices for consumers.
For example, the Rwandan government has constructed Kigali Innovation City, a $2 billion digital transformation hub, which will bring together world-class universities, technology companies and young entrepreneurs across Africa.
At the same time, digitalization needs to be placed at the core of national agricultural development policies and public investment plans. Also, a transparent regulatory environment is required that promotes further adoption of digital technologies and services while balancing the free-flow of data and information with privacy policies.
“Digitalization done smartly and at scale offers the opportunity for African countries to overcome the many infrastructural, institutional and technological obstacles that have hampered growth and transformation of the agricultural and rural economy,” said Ousmane Badiane, co-chair of the Malabo Montpellier Panel. “It would otherwise take generations and substantial investments to overcome the above obstacles – time and money that countries do not have.”
“Digital technologies can be deployed to upgrade skills, deliver services, connect business to reach a critical mass of operators across widely dispersed geographic areas in much shorter time and at lower cost,” Badiane added.
Addressing Post-harvest losses
One area that the report flagged as lacking in digital innovation is post-harvest losses. This is a crucial issue in Africa’s agricultural value chain, which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates at as high as 37 per cent of total production.
The report also warns that Africa needs to tackle the IT skills and digital literacy gap, especially amongst farmers, extension agents and e-agriculture entrepreneurs. If not addressed, these could limit the region’s efforts to contributing to or leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the expense of the agriculture sector.
Benefits of digitalization are already being seen across much of the agricultural value chain, from providing access to information and other services including finance all the way to improving links to markets. Technologies can include Blockchain, Big Data, robotics, and the Internet of Things, as well as more low-tech, frugal innovations.
Apps such as FarmCrowdy and FarmDrive in Kenya use Big Data to build credit scores for farmers and have since helped thousands gain access to loans. Tools such as Nigerian firm Zenvus’ SmartFarm sensor and Ghana’s Ignitia’s weather forecast model provide farmers with soil and weather data, building their resilience to raise productivity and navigate shocks. Meanwhile, Hello Tractor technologies in Nigeria and Kenya and TROTRO Tractor apps in Ghana help farmers identify nearby tractors available for rent.
The Malabo Montpellier Panel convenes 17 leading experts in agriculture, ecology, nutrition and food security to guide policy choices by African governments to accelerate progress towards food security and improved nutrition in Africa.