How going digital will keep us well fed and make our farmers rich

Wednesday June 14 2017

Technology offers the greatest potential for

Technology offers the greatest potential for connecting millions of rural farmers to the information they need to improve productivity. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By RAPHAEL WOLF

Can Africa become a self-sufficient food producer within a decade? Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), announced this goal at a recent AfDB meeting in May. It’s a bold vision considering that Africa’s annual food import bill of $36 billion could rise to $110 billion by 2025. 

Africa’s success in achieving food self-sufficiency rests in large part with its smallholder farmers. The majority of the food produced comes from small farms that are under-resourced and under-financed.

To achieve the AfDB’s bold goal, we must invest in the systems that will enable farmers to produce and earn more from their farms while feeding the continent.

Globally, the demand by smallholder farmers for financing outstrips supply tenfold. In Africa, the gap is even greater. Bridging this gap requires not only stronger policies and action from governments, but also a paradigm shift in how we view and serve farmers.

New financing models and technologies can help us bypass many challenges, such as the limited credit history of farmers and inefficient processes. Sustainable, innovative use of digital technology can also help small farmers.

In Tanzania, for example, smallholder farmers produce nearly 70 per cent of the country’s food, yet only half of them produce enough to sell because they cannot invest in the tools, seeds and other inputs needed to modernise their farms and increase their production.

The challenge: Less than 6 per cent of bank credit goes to smallholder farmers, forcing them to either borrow from mostly unscrupulous lenders or dig into their meagre savings.

Innovative financing

In both cases, they are forced to buy low-quality inputs that keep them trapped in a vicious circle of under-production and poverty.

But what if farmers did not have to amass all the funds they need at the beginning of the planting season? Grameen Foundation, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) and Positive International Ltd are testing a new approach that will enable farmers to purchase inputs on a digital layaway plan.

It comes complete with crop management plans and taps into Tanzania’s fast-evolving mobile money network. And by mapping savings to the seasonality of earnings, farmers gain greater purchasing power and control over their farming decisions.

Innovative financing can also transform inefficient processes. For example, Musoni Kenya no longer requires farmers to visit branches to apply for its signature Kilimo Booster agricultural loan.

Instead, loan officers visit farmers to collect the required information digitally on tablets, along with photos of the farms and other details that give Musoni insight into farmers’ operations. Loans are approved within 72 hours, ensuring that farmers get cash infusions when they need them, and Musoni also customises repayment terms to match farmers’ production cycle. 

Kilimo Booster, which Grameen Foundation co-designed, takes advantage of Kenya’s almost universal access to mobile phones and ubiquitous network of mobile money agents, easing the burden for farmers who often cannot afford the lost time and money spent traveling to a branch office.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Africa, a panellist noted that only 20 per cent of farmers in Africa were using the correct seed and agri-input combination needed to reap maximum benefit from their farms.

Access to financing is certainly one challenge, but insufficient agricultural training and education also play a significant role. Government-run agricultural extension services are simply too overstretched to support smallholder farmers’ need to increase production of market-quality produce. 

But high-calibre extension services are essential to Africa’s food self-sufficiency because they not only help farmers increase production of cash crops, they also help them stabilise their income, improve family nutrition through diversification, improve post-harvest handling practices and achieve the certification required by larger buyers.

Extension services

Technology offers the greatest potential for connecting millions of rural farmers to the information they need to improve productivity. When well designed, these new systems also enable farmers to get timely market price reports, weather updates and alerts about pests and disease. 

As stated by the African Agriculture Status Report (Agra 2016), expanding and improving public extension services, connecting complementary private extension services to government programmes, and increasing the use of information and communication technologies are all vital. 

In our experience, these programmes are most beneficial when technology is integrated with the expertise and know-how of field agents. In Ghana, for example, field agents from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture use the AgroTech app to collect information on local farming practices and to create personalised farm management plans that allow farmers to invest strategically in their farms.

That knowledge is spread even farther when agents appear on the AgroTech radio programme — a great example of how new and old technology can complement each other.

Calls for self-sufficiency and greater investment in African agriculture have become more urgent as the continent has faced rising food insecurity and regional famines. Tightened national budgets have made it difficult but the benefits are clear.

According to Agra, the countries that met the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme goal of investing 10 per cent of their annual budgets to modernise their agricultural sector, saw a 6 per cent yearly increase in productivity and up to a 4.3 per cent increase in their GDP. 

Progress towards making Africa master of its own food production will certainly be boosted and expanded by the AfDB’s pledge of $24 billion over the next decade, but only if we invest in the future of our smallest producers.
Raphael Wolf is a Grameen Foundation programme leader in Tanzania.