Disruptive Agriculture Technology Moonshot—Ready for Lift Off in Sub-Saharan Africa?

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Can Africa feed Africa? This question is frequently asked, especially when there are 256 million people (1 in 5) in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) who are critically undernourished.  And the numbers are growing. Escalating weather volatility due to climate change further exacerbate food and nutrition insecurity. Frequent droughts and floods are triggering a food crisis in at least one or more countries every year, demanding emergency responses.  

What will it take to bring a radical transformation in the agriculture sector of SSA countries? How can we unlock its untapped potential, achieve a hunger free region, and ensure growth and prosperity for all smallholder farmers? Can disruptive agriculture technologies (D4Ag) be a catalyst to transform agriculture and solve the multiple challenges facing SSA farmers today?  

What are these disruptive technologies? They combine the power of digital and non-digital innovations to enable farmers to increase their yields, help build resilience to climate change, provide links to markets, and ultimately raise their incomes by lowering input costs, increasing outputs and eventually increasing the value of their products. And farmers are reaping the benefits. An impact assessment of mobile advisory services via SMS by Precision Agriculture for Development found that sending SMS with agricultural advice to smallholder sugarcane farmers in Kenya increased their yields by 11.5% relative to a control group. 

Such disruptive technology can be good business  

In fact, a new generation of tech-savvy local entrepreneurs in the region is building digital platforms to provide streamlined and more reliable services to farmers and agribusinesses, whether large or small. Their applications cover improving smallholder productivity, strengthening their market linkages, and providing access to finance and data for improved decision-making. Notably, some enterprises such as Hello Tractor provides “uber” tractor services to over 250,000 farmers and Farmers Pride Africa has one stop “Digishops”, supporting 10,000  farmers to access inputs, livestock services, and ag insurance from reliable input providers and connecting them with buyers. 

Another example of an enterprise that provides a bundle of technology services to farmers is Agri-Wallet in Kenya. It offers a mobile financial platform to connect farmers and buyers to sell their produce or to input suppliers to buy inputs, with payments made through mobile money. It also serves as a digital wallet for savings or to obtain loans.  Most of these entrepreneurs bundle services and make their earnings from the transaction markups from input and insurance companies, financial institutions, and commodity buyers. 

What makes disruptive agriculture technology enterprises thrive in SSA 

The rapid growth of mobile and internet access and mobile payments are key game changers as they aid in reducing transaction costs. In 2018, the SSA region had 395.7 million registered mobile money accounts, served by more than 130 live mobile money services and a network of more than 1.4 million agents. Currently, about 33 million smallholder farmers and pastoralists are registered to use digital agriculture solutions in SSA, which accounts for 13% of all SSA smallholders and pastoralists. Registrations grew by about 44% per year in the last three years. 

Source: World Bank, 2019, Scaling up Disruptive Agriculture Technologies in Africa
Source: World Bank, 2019, Scaling up Disruptive Agriculture Technologies in Africa

What’s beneficial is that even lower connectivity environments do not prevent farmer access. Rapid advancements and declining costs of popular technologies that can operate off-line-- mobile and smart phones, IPADs, computers, portable video projectors, sensors, GPS mapping tools, IoT-- make this possible. One only needs to update content and perform the data analytics upon reaching a village or city center, where mobile or internet services operate.

What’s more,  D4Ag  also help overcome limited farmer literacy and language barriers.  Content can be shown via video or pictures translated into local languages, facilitated by image recognition and artificial intelligence. Digital Green in Ethiopia provides extension services to half a million farmers via community developed video tools. Kuza in Kenya operates on- or off-line using IPADs, smart phones and portable battery-operated Wi-Fi devices to provide advisory services, access to agri-inputs, credit, market and other services to smallholder farmers.  

Governments are also joining the movement 

Ministries of Agriculture are tapping digital platforms to make delivery of agriculture services more efficient, transparent and accountable. E-vouchers have been rolled out in Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia; e-extension in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda; and digital land registration in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Rwanda, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda.  

The World Bank Africa Region has set targets for a Sub-Saharan Africa Digital Moonshot. A similar D4Ag Moonshot for SSA can bring the power of digital solutions to lift millions of farmers, large and small, to greater productivity and prosperity. For this to become a reality, policy makers need to create a favorable enabling agribusiness environment. This would include faster progress in ending direct government input distribution and commodity marketing, eliminating trade restrictions, adopting a pluralistic extension policy, and shifting to smart subsidies. It is equally important that they continue to finance public goods like agriculture research and rural infrastructure. In addition, governments need to strengthen agriculture digital skills, invest in farmer databases supported by a strong data privacy policy, and promote digital agriculture incubator hubs.  

The disruptive agriculture technology sector has already lifted off in SSA, launching the moonshot. But we are still a long way from reaching the moon.

Authors

Dina Umali-Deininger

Agriculture Practice Manager, Sustainable Development, in the Africa Region of the World Bank

Jeehye Kim

Agricultural Economist at the World Bank

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