African agriculture is ready for a digital revolution
After a dark 2020, a new year has brought new hope. In Africa, where up to 40 million more people were driven into extreme poverty and the continent experienced its first recession in 25 years, a brighter future beckons as the economy is forecast to return to growth this year.
Africa now has an opportunity to reset its economic compass. To build back not just better, but greener. Particularly as the next crisis—climate change—is already upon us.
Africa’s food systems must be made more resilient to future shocks such as floods, droughts, and disease. Urgent and sustainable increases in food production are needed to reduce reliance on food imports and reduce poverty, and this is where digital services come into play.
With mobile phone ownership in Sub-Saharan Africa alone expected to reach half a billion this year, digital services offered via text messaging can reach even the most remote village. And at least one-fifth of these phones also have smart features, meaning they can connect to the internet.
We can already see how digital services drive prosperity locally and nationally. In Uganda, SMS services that promote market price awareness have lifted the price farmers receive for bananas by 36 percent, beans by 16.5 percent, maize by 17 percent, and coffee by 19 percent. In Ghana, services that cut out the middleman have lifted the price for maize by 10 percent and groundnuts by 7 percent.
But digital services don’t just raise farmgate prices, they are the gateway to farm loans, crop insurance, and greater economic security, which in turn enables farmers to increase their resilience to climate change—by experimenting with new, drought-resistant crops, for example, or innovative farming methods.
Text messages with weather reports help farmers make better decisions about when and what to plant, and when to harvest.
In Niger, a phone-based education program has improved crop diversity, with more farmers likely to grow the cash crop okra, while an advisory service in Ethiopia helped increase wheat production from one ton to three tons per hectare.
The data footprints phone users create can also be analyzed to help assess risk when it comes to offering loans, making credit cheaper and more accessible.
Phones and digital services also speed up the spread of information through social networks, helping farmers learn about new drought-resistant crops or services that can increase productivity. Free-to-use mobile phone-based app WeFarm, for example, has already helped more than 2.4 million farmers find certified suppliers of quality seeds at fair prices. They can also connect farmers to internet-based services.
Examples of digital innovation abound, sometimes across borders. In Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, equipment-sharing platform Hello Tractor is helping farmers rent machinery by the day or even hour, while in Ethiopia, AfriScout, run by the non-government organization Project Concern International with the World Food Programme and the Ministry for Agriculture, provides satellite images of water supplies and crops every 10 days so problems can be spotted quickly to aid remedial action.
Transforming food systems digitally has demonstrably excellent results: the African Development Bank, which has allocated over half of its climate financing to adaptation since 2019, has already helped 19 million farmers in 27 countries to lift yields by an average 60 percent through applying digital technology, for example.
This is why the Global Center on Adaptation and the African Development Bank have launched the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program (AAAP) to mobilize $25 billion to scale up and accelerate innovative climate-change adaptation across Africa.
Once developed, the digital nature of these services often makes such projects easy to replicate elsewhere and scale, even across large rural areas with little existing infrastructure.
Further, adaptation projects are proven to be highly cost-effective, often delivering value many times the original investment and so helping African economies grow faster and create many more much-needed jobs.
This makes it imperative that the global resolve to rebuild economies in the wake of Covid-19 is harnessed in the most effective way. We must not simply replicate the mistakes of the past. We must build back stronger, with a more resilient and climate-smart focus.
Funding and promoting disruptive business models in which digital technologies are embedded to increase productivity without using more land or more water will create a triple win: increased production, a more resilient climate and more empowered farmers.
We have the means and the technical capability to put Africa well on the way to achieving food self-sufficiency and greater climate resilience. In doing so, we can help millions move out of food poverty. We must not squander this opportunity to create truly historic and lasting change.