Disruption for production: how to truly transform African agriculture

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Each previous industrial revolution brought with it new technologies and tools to radically transform society at large, including the way we produce and consume food. But while many in Africa are still coming to grips with technologies from the last industrial revolution, the next promises to bring innovations that allow the continent to leapfrog towards enormous productivity gains and improved food security.

Not only are new technologies adding to existing methods, they are disrupting traditional means of production and markets as well. But what is it that differentiates these technologies from those that have come before?

The first major distinction is the level of impact. Disruptive technologies can have an exceptional, far-reaching influence on food production and markets, increasing results by as much as fivefold. This has a multiplier effect as agricultural productivity and success is inherently linked to food and nutrition security, economic prosperity and social development.

For example, new platforms such as M-Cash are harnessing integrated e-commerce to help farmers buy high-quality, authentic inputs, such as fertilizer or seeds. These kinds of inputs can dramatically increase a farmer’s yield, and with higher yields, farmers can invest back into their operations and other economic activities. Similarly, AkelloBanker offers products and services on credit, such as tractor hire and farm labor, both of which can ease the burden of farm work and improve productivity.

The second significant differentiator is the extent to which these innovations allow farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs to circumvent conventions along the entire value chain, allowing them to achieve the same or better results, albeit in a far more efficient manner.

M-Omulimisa, for instance, has a mobile and web-based platform enabling farmers to exchange information with extension officers in their local languages. Working with more than 300 farmer groups, this free service uses a network of village agents to provide much-needed advisory services to help farmers embrace new practices that can help them along the entire agri-value chain.

Finally, disruptive technologies also help to level the playing field by giving African farmers access to more and better data, which helps build their resilience to shocks that might otherwise disproportionately affect them.

Data Care Uganda, an IT consultancy firm, provides software, and data management, as well as customised training, to encourage the digitalisation of farm processes. This type of work is essential in building data points around African farms on indicators such as soil fertility to allow farmers to make more accurate decisions to greater effect throughout the planting season.

Africa has arguably never been more ready for this disruption than it is right now. The continent is home to some of the youngest populations in the world, and it has also experienced a steady rise in both mobile-phone and internet usage alongside a budding technology and digital scene.

By embracing these new technologies, Sub-Saharan Africa stands to disrupt the status quo of a traditional agriculture sector by improving yields and productivity whilst building resilience to the worsening weather conditions brought on by the climate crisis.

This is why, in April, the World Bank launched the Disruptive Agriculture Challenge in Nairobi, Kenya. Regional innovators were given the chance to present their products and services with the potential for further opportunities to scale up these innovations to more users.

In Kenya, the aim was to reach one million farmers, but it soon became clear that these technologies can go much further. The Challenge was then extended to Uganda in November, as a flourishing digital start-up scene makes the country fertile ground for disruptive technologies. 

These technologies, though some may be older than others and differ in format, have one thing in common. They allow farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs a springboard beyond traditional infrastructure and techniques, allowing them to increase their productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness.

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