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Food Production

How can digital technology help transform Africa’s food system?

Simeon Ehui's picture
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Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank
There’s no question that agriculture is critical to Africa’s biggest development goals. It is fundamental for poverty reduction, economic growth and environment sustainability. African food market continues to grow. It is estimated that African food markets will triple to US$1 trillion from its current US$300 billion value. Farming accounts for 60% of total employment in Sub-Saharan Africa—and food system jobs account for even more. In Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, the food system is projected to add more jobs than the rest of the economy between 2010 and 2025.

And yet, Africa’s agriculture sector is facing serious challenges. Agricultural productivity in Africa lags behind other regions. One in four people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically undernourished. Africa’s food system is further strained by rapid population growth and climate change. The food security challenge will only grow as climate change intensifies, threatening crop and livestock production. If no adaptation occurs, production of maize—which is one of Africa’s staple crops—could decline by up to 40% by 2050. Clearly, business as usual approaches to agriculture in Africa aren’t fit for transforming the sector to meet its full potential.

Digital technology could be part of the solution. But how can digital technology help transform Africa’s food system?

It’s instructive to look at startups, which are an emerging force in Africa’s agriculture sector.

Agriculture 2.0: how the Internet of Things can revolutionize the farming sector

Hyea Won Lee's picture
Nguyen Van Khuyen (right) and To Hoai Thuong (left). Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Last year, we showcased how Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are adapting to climate change. You met two shrimp farmers: Nguyen Van Khuyen, who lost his shrimp production due to an exceptionally dry season that made his pond too salty for raising shrimp, and To Hoai Thuong, who managed to maintain normal production levels by diluting his shrimp pond with fresh water. Now, let’s suppose Nguyen diluted his shrimp pond this year, another year with an extremely dry season. That would be a good start, but there would be other issues to contend with related to practical application. For example, when should he release fresh water and how much? How often should he check the water salinity? And what if he’s out of town?
 
Nguyen’s story illustrates some of the problems global agriculture faces, and how they unfold for farmers on the ground. Rapid population growth, dietary shifts, resource constraints, and climate change are confronting farmers who need to produce more with less. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to rise by 70% to meet the projected demand by 2050. Efficient management and optimized use of farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer will be essential. However, managing these inputs efficiently is difficult without consistent and precise monitoring. For smallholder farmers, who account for 4/5 of global agricultural production from developing regions, getting the right information would help increase production gains. Unfortunately, many of them still rely on guess work, rather than data, for their farming decisions.
 
This is where agriculture can get a little help from the Internet of Things (IoT)—or internet-enabled communications between everyday objects. Through the IoT, sensors can be deployed wherever you want–on the ground, in water, or in vehicles–to collect data on target inputs such as soil moisture and crop health. The collected data are stored on a server or cloud system wirelessly, and can be easily accessed by farmers via the Internet with tablets and mobile phones. Depending on the context, farmers can choose to manually control connected devices or fully automate processes for any required actions. For example, to water crops, a farmer can deploy soil moisture sensors to automatically kickstart irrigation when the water-stress level reaches a given threshold.