From delivery drones to self-driving cars and chatbots, technology may be rapidly transforming the way the world shops, works and interacts. But in Africa, digitalisation is on the cusp of sparking a far more important revolution.
Across a continent where 80% of food is produced by smallholder farmers, digital technologies and innovations are a game changer in transforming African agriculture.
Digital services that provide targeted advice, including weather information on mobile phones or link farmers to markets, are helping smallholders feed a growing population in the face of a changing climate while also attracting more young entrepreneurs to agriculture.
A new report, which surveyed the market in Africa for the first time, found more than 33 million smallholder farmers were already registered with agricultural-related digital tools and services.
And with annual growth of around 45% since 2012, digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag) in Africa will likely reach all farmers on the continent by 2030 as more farmers adopt technology such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, drones and the Internet of Things.
Yet, digitalisation in African agriculture is still in its nascent, competitive stages.
As revealed in The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report, a large number of players make up this young market, with at least 390 distinct digital ventures in operation across sub-Saharan Africa. Of this, only 15 companies have reached a million users or more, with the majority finding the most success in bundling multiple services together.
Moreover, investment in digitalisation for agriculture to date has been isolated, scattered and piecemeal, with efforts to scale-up being unnecessarily duplicated, causing inefficiencies and hampering large-scale, long-term growth.
There is enormous potential for digitalisation to help achieve food security, nutrition and resilience to climate change in Africa.
Initial figures suggest that farmers can increase their yields by up to 70% with support from digital tools that provide agronomic advice while others have seen their incomes improve by 20 to 40% by better linking them to markets to sell their produce or buy agricultural inputs.
But this potential will not be fulfilled by chance. At such a defining moment for this burgeoning market, we will only realise the true benefit of digitalisation in African agriculture with strong, coordinated leadership.
This is why there is a need for those of us working for Africa’s development to collaborate and support the sector as it grows, and set the long-term agenda for the imminent digital transformation.
Digitalisation for agriculture in Africa needs an alliance of governments, donors, farmers, agribusiness and international bodies partnering with big tech to support organisations on the ground that are well positioned to design products that directly serve the needs of farmers.
This would provide a set of best practices to help the broader sector understand what works and what does not, becoming the “go-to-place” for expertise across the continent. This would include gathering evidence of their impact to help direct investment priorities.
It would also support the shared goal of increasing awareness of digitalisation for agriculture and digital literacy among smallholder farmers to increase the pace of uptake and adoption of these solutions.
And, finally, it would also tackle industry-wide issues and risks associated with the rise of proprietary technology.
From trust and privacy to accessibility, a collaborative approach from all interested parties would not only protect users and ensure fairness and transparency, but ensure that technology is a force for good in Africa.
They say data is the new oil, which may be true in some parts of the world. But in Africa, we must work hard to ensure that data is the cleaner fuel for a more sustainable transformation, keeping the continent on track to meet its food and nutrition demands in this century and beyond.
All the indicators point to a market that is ripe for investment now. And as long as we learn from the past, manage risks and take into account data sovereignty, inclusivity, sustainability, then we can all benefit.
Michael Hailu is the Director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). CTA is at the forefront of the fight against poverty and for sustainable food security in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States.