Is mobile innovation Africa’s agricultural silver bullet?

Telecommunication station1.jpg

The best catalyst for game changing technological innovation is facing the hardest problems. Africa, and in particular, the agricultural landscape, has some seriously hard problems to solve. Therefore it is the perfect laboratory to facilitate the development of these technologies. In recent years, we have seen many pockets of technologies being developed across the continent, especially in the field of mobile communication, each claiming to be the initiator of the agricultural revolution in Africa.

Many African leaders have been very vocal about the major impact these technologies will have on the agricultural landscape.

Personally, I have my doubts, and believe the answer to the problem is more complex than going with the “there’s-an-app-for-that” solution.

“Africa is the future breadbasket of the world”—is a phrase grossly overused in boardrooms around the world. With a world-beating annual economic growth rate of almost 6% it’s hard to argue the point. However, there remains a major disconnect between economic growth and Africa’s ability to feed it’s ever-growing population, with an estimated 25% of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa chronically undernourished.

How is this possible, with whopping 65% of the working population involved in agriculture contributing 35% to the continents’ GDP?

Despite this it remains a net importer of agricultural goods.

In 2003 the African Union’s development agency, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, called the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) challenged all African nations to increase their budget allocation for agriculture to 10% (with the average being 4%) and aim for an annual agricultural growth rate of 6%. Over 40 countries signed up for the challenge, but only a handful actually implemented it.

Malawi, Senegal and Sierra Leone were of the few who fully adopted the CAADP’s programme and have seen some major improvements in their agricultural production due to their governments’ commitment to increase agricultural spending. Most notably, Rwanda, who adopted the CAAD agenda in 2007 has in six years seen a major improvement in maize production – up 213% from 0,8 t/h to 2,5 t/h.

Being involved in the high end of technology within agriculture, I come across many technologies developed for an African environment.

Many innovation hubs are popping up across the continent, with Kenya leading the charge.

Most notably, IBM launched its famous innovation hub in Nairobi just over 12 months ago with the aim of solving problems through the use of cognitive computing. Most of the agricultural-tech being developed is aimed at providing the smallholder farmer with more relevant in-time information about best practice, disease control and market information.

Over 75% African farmers own a mobile phone, so these developments seem perfectly logical, but are they having an actual impact in addressing the ever-mounting macro economic issues the continent face.

I believe too much emphasis is placed on these technologies being the “savior” of the smallholder farmer largely because it seems like the easiest solution.

It’s almost a case of trying to run before learning to crawl.

There are some very basic physical issues that need urgent attention, which will make a huge difference before any technological interventions have been implemented.

Mentioned below are just a few of the physical challenges that could easily double agricultural output in Africa when properly addressed:

Access to capital. Everything in the farming cycle needs capital. Without capital, the farmer can’t buy quality seed or fertilizer, meaning he is already on the back foot. Access to capital can be greatly improved if governments sort out land tenure, giving many more smallholders official ownership of their piece of land. This will in turn allow smallholders to qualify for a loan using their land as collateral.

Logistical support. Increasing a farmer’s production is pointless if he can’t actually sell the produce. Vastly improved transportation infrastructure is required, to connect the farmers with markets. Only once the transportation network exists can mobile technology facilitate optimum routes as well as timing.

Location specific ecosystem based adaptations. Climate change is set to hit Africa the hardest. With more than 50% of the fertile land being unutilized, governments can take an active role in allocating suitable land and matching the crops to be cultivated in the unique ecosystem. (soil type, rainfall etc)

Smart water management. Water is by far the most important requirement in food production. Africa has an abundance of it, but only manages to use 2% toward agricultural production. (Global average: 5%)

95% of farmers rely solely on rainfall for irrigation. Building more damns and waterways will give more farmers a stable water supply, which will increase production dramatically.

A great interactive infographic by FarmingFirst highlights many other factors: Africa’s Agricultural Potential

How can technological innovation play a vital role?

Firstly one needs to look at the commercial sustainability of the technology. Too many of the innovations aimed at the smallholder are being funded by multinationals or donor funds for a limited time without a clear roadmap of commercialization. If it can’t sustain itself without external sponsorship, it will fail.

And the big loser here is the farmer.

Many of the mobile technologies are simply dumbed down versions of their commercial farming counterparts used in vastly different environments. A bespoke smallholder approach needs to be taken where we address the seemingly simple challenges they face for example – how much fertilizer should I apply to my piece of land?

Better Internet connectivity could also facilitate richer visual content such as video which will bridge the literacy gap (more than 1 in 3 adults cannot read.) Google is developing some very promising technology is this space – see Google Loon.

Lastly, a ubiquitous platform to house all these mobile technologies will greatly improve adoption rates and usability. Currently the implementation of the various technologies is erratic and very confusing for the farmer. There is a very big drive in the development of multiple technologies, but little actual consideration for how exactly it will be implemented.

In conclusion

Although my post mostly points out the shortcomings of the mobile technological innovation currently being implemented in Africa, I believe that by taking a more holistic approach to the challenges faced by the farmer on the ground, technology can facilitate and speed up the much needed agricultural revolution in Africa.

Communication needs be at the heart of this development, whether by connecting people remotely, supplying real-time information informing better decisions or raising the education levels.

This is only possible when all the African innovators stand together and collaborate with the single goal of solving the hardest problems the world has to offer, in Africa.

Examples of mobile agricultural innovation in Africa

iCow (Kenya)

iCow helps cow farmers maximise breeding potential by tracking the fertility cycle of their animals. Think of it as a virtual midwife for cows, giving farmers valuable tips on breeding, animal nutrition and milk production efficiency to help increase milk yields and ultimately their income

– (credit: Ken Banks)

Esoko (Uganda)

Esoko is an information and communication service for agricultural markets in Africa. It is a response to the explosive growth of cellular services across the continent. The company provides advice to farmers (market prices, weather forecasts, and growing tips) to help them increase yields and profits as well as solutions to businesses (marketing products, monitoring activities, and sourcing goods) to help them connect with farmers. (Wikipedia)

CocoaLink (Ghana)

CocoaLink is a mobile technology service that delivers timely farming, social and marketing information to cocoa farmers in 15 communities in western Ghana to improve incomes and livelihoods.

Cocoa farmers who subscribe to CocoaLink receive and share practical information via SMS text and voice messages with industry experts and other farmers. CocoaLink is available to any Ghanaian with a cell phone, with messages delivered in English or the local language.

Ruan Boezaart


comments powered by Disqus


This edition

Issue 46


Harvest_SA The latest Harvest SA edition is available now. #digital #agriculutre 14 days - reply - retweet - favorite

Harvest_SA proudly presents its new Cape Office and Warehouse!. This new facility unlocks a growth opportunity for… 4 months - reply - retweet - favorite

Harvest_SA and the #AfricanAgriCouncil (AAC) invite you to attend the two day Agri-Food Tech & Innovation Summit (A… 5 months - reply - retweet - favorite