Digital technology is likely to continue to be a major driver of development and industry in Africa. The capabilities of local entrepreneurs, start-ups and businesses to provide services such as technical assistance and finance are growing significantly due to greater access to mobile and internet technology. As such digital solutions are likely to make a huge contribution to addressing local concerns, connecting people in remote areas and to reaching greater numbers of people than more traditional development initiatives. Such technologies are already transforming the way in which smallholder farmers work and interact. Here we discuss five ways in which digital technology can play a part in transforming agriculture in Africa.
- Extension services
Accessing information on farming practices, crop diseases, pest control and land management can be made easier for rural farmers through mobile technology. At present there is a large gap between extension services provided and farmers being reached. In Kenya, for example, over 5 million smallholder farmers rely on just 5,500 agricultural extension workers so many are not getting the advice and information they need. Provision of phone-based agricultural information, advice and support to smallholder farmers can bridge this gap by utilising Africa’s exiting mobile network (currently the second biggest mobile market in the world). The form of the service can differ between organisations, some relying on coordinating agents within local communities to provide advice via their phone, some being purely an information service providing farmers with text messages containing advice relating to farming activities occurring at that time. Esoko, which provides a variety of agriculturally-related apps, has created several platforms for providing technical assistance, including personalised alerts with market, weather and agronomic information; knowledge-sharing to deliver extension advice to extension agents though audio, video, instruction manuals and information libraries; and bulk messaging to send data on best practice, campaigns and new products to all farmers.
- Market and price data
Smallholder farmers often lack access to market information but mobile phones allow farmers to find out the prices of crops before they travel the sometimes long distances to markets. Providers of these services use SMS text messaging to quickly communicate accurate information about the prices of crops, which means farmers can not only ensure they are getting the right amount, aiding in their negotiations with traders, but that they are selling their crops at the right time to guarantee a high price. One such service in Kenya, SokoniSMS64, provides farmers with accurate, up-to-date market prices from around the country.
- Rural financing
Global demand for agricultural financing, valued at some US$450 billion, is largely unmet. Transaction costs required to provide traditional financial services to large numbers of individuals, with relatively small transactions, across more remote regions can be prohibitively high and as such many smallholder farmers lack access to formal banking. Digital technology again can help to bridge the divide between formal institutions and the poor, who have to rely on informal source of finance and the exorbitant fees and interest associated with them. Mobile phones can reduce transaction costs by eliminating the need for much infrastructure, opening up a whole new market for companies, which require new innovative financial products. Bill Gates in a recent article on Gates Notes used the example of a new company called M-KOPA, “which lets 250,000 customers in three African countries pay for solar electricity (instead of kerosene) in small daily installments through their cell phones”. He applauds the rise of digital technology in creating a more inclusive banking sector. Recognising this financing and technology gap affecting small holder farmers, the Master Card Foundation last year announced a $6.9 million fund covering nine projects across Africa that will provide financial products to farmers via Information Communication Technology (ICT) platforms.
- Cloud farming
Although a sophisticated technology relying on expensive high-tech equipment, and thus not practical for the average smallholder farmer, cloud farming is increasing our knowledge of what happens on a farm scale, knowledge which could be useful in providing technical assistance on a broader scale. IBM’s EZ-Farm project, which is currently being piloted in Kenya, aims to explore how advanced data collection and analytics can help farmers monitor farming conditions on their smallholdings. Around the farm, sensors and infra-red cameras are strategically placed to monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, the performance of irrigation equipment, and rates of photosynthesis. This data is then streamed wirelessly to the IBM Cloud and can be accessed by the farmer via a smartphone app. The hope is that with access to such information, farmers can modify their practices and make their farms more productive.
Digital technology can bridge the gaps between the informal and formal sectors; can spread knowledge and information; can make agricultural markets, extension services and finance more accessible and can also help to engage youth in the sector. But this doesn’t mean it is a magic bullet. It will rely on the quality of the services and information provided, on the motivations of the people providing such services and on whether smallholder farmers are reaping the benefits of digital technology. As with all technology it is not what is being used but how it is being used that will determine whether it does good or harm. But while many technologies remain under the control of a few individuals, digital technology is far wider in its reach and its ability to drive innovation.