Digital technologies can improve agriculture in Africa as they have potential to significantly raise productivity of smallholder farmers, Fabian Lange, associate research officer at the Kofi Annan Foundation, tells Jarle Hetland. As part of the organization’s Combatting Hunger Programme, which advocates for the transformation of African agriculture to ensure food and nutrition security, he has seen first-hand how going digital is transforming the continent.
Hetland: How can digital technologies help to combat hunger in Africa?
Lange: Digital technologies such as mobile phones, satellites and big data provide unprecedented opportunities to integrate smallholders into food systems. Through mobile phones, for example, smallholders can receive rural advisory services tailored to their needs, access weather information in real time to adjust their planting and get market prices to negotiate efficiently with potential buyers. Digital technologies clearly have the potential to improve smallholders’ productivity and increase food security.
H: Can digital technology be made realistic, cost efficient and sustainable in rural and inaccessible parts of Africa?
L: Digital technology is becoming increasingly available and affordable in rural areas of Africa. Today, 75% of Africans own mobile phones and mobile networks are growing dramatically in rural areas, enabling a twoway communication between previously isolated smallholders and the other actors involved in the food system. As well as providing benefits to rural communities, many digital solutions are commercially viable and therefore sustainable in the long term. For example, M-Farm, a mobile phone-based market information and trading system, has been successful in giving Kenyan farmers access to market prices and connecting them directly with buyers.
H: What are some of the main challenges?
L: There are numerous digital projects throughout Africa in support of smallholder agriculture. One key challenge is scaling them up, which requires policy changes, investments and sustained effort from governments, private enterprises and NGOs. On the technical level, farmers need to be assigned ‘unique user identifiers’ so that they can actually receive services tailored to their specific needs. This has been done quite successfully in Nigeria, where the government has assigned identifiers to about 15 million farmers to provide input subsidies directly to farmers through its e-Wallet programme. We also have to ensure that digital applications are run on neutral platforms to which any farmer can connect, including the poorest and most vulnerable. For example, the Agricultural Transformation Agency of Ethiopia developed a digital soil map which is public and can be used by anybody.
H: What is the foundation doing to address the situation?
L: The Kofi Annan Foundation mobilizes political will to overcome threats to peace, development and human rights. Like with so many of the world’s issues, the knowhow to combat hunger effectively is already there. We therefore convene the big players from the private sector, government, the UN and civil society to pool their resources and make it happen.
With our partners we look to building the digital infrastructure in support of these African smallholders. We named our efforts here the African Food Systems Initiative, which aims to enable smallholders to turn their subsistence farms into profitable businesses while improving food and nutrition security across Africa.