Can disruptive technologies end perennial famine in East Africa?

Wednesday April 24 2019

Experts say digital agriculture could help small holder farmers and rural economies productivity and raise incomes. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Technological investments in agriculture can help East Africa deal with a looming food shortage and raise the sector’s contribution towards economic growth and creating jobs, World Bank experts have said.

According to the experts, there is a need for governments, donors and private sector to invest in digital agriculture and disruptive technologies — those that render existing technologies obsolete — and apply them in all segments of the value chain including among smallholder farmers and rural economies, to increase productivity and raise incomes.

“Multiple changes in the structure of the food system and agriculture should offer new opportunities to deal with sector challenges,” said Dr Parmesh Shah, the lead rural development specialist for Africa at the World Bank.

He was speaking in Nairobi recently at an international forum on disruptive technologies in agriculture.

East Africa remains a food insecure region despite impressive economic growth over the past decade, a trend that is increasingly being attributed to the use of technology.



There are concerns that even in countries like Kenya where technological advances in the mobile money service MPesa have spawned successful financial innovations, agriculture remains the least digitised sector of the economy.

“Disruptive agricultural technology is significant for Kenya and Africa because it has the potential to improve farm productivity, help farmers cope with climate risks and raise farm-derived incomes by taking the guesswork out of farming and marketing operations,” said Dr Shah.

Economists believe that disruptive technologies could multiply yields, boost farmers’ incomes and ultimately improve lives for the millions of households who live on agriculture.

East Africa’s perennial food shortages have been highlighted in several reports, including the United Nations Development Programme’s latest Human Development Report which paints a gloomy picture of the situation on the continent.

The report describes the paradox of an Africa that is agriculturally endowed, but is still acutely food insecure. It notes that the spectre of famine, which has virtually disappeared elsewhere in the world, continues to haunt most parts of sub-Saharan Africa despite the predominance of agriculture as the main economic activity for the majority of households.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has ample agricultural land, plenty of water and a generally favourable climate for growing food,” says the report, which attributes the paradox to the failure of African governments to embrace technology and institute the right policies.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has abundant agricultural resources. But shamefully, in all corners of the region, millions of people remain hungry and malnourished — as a result of glaringly uneven local food production and distribution and chronically deficient diets, especially among the poorest.”


The UNDP says boosting agricultural productivity in Africa will require broader application of fertilisers and provision of seeds, stronger research and development, and a more co-ordinated and responsive extension system staffed by experts versed in the behaviours and habitats of local farming communities.

It also states that attracting young Africans to agriculture is critical to infusing fresh energy and ideas to the sector’s development.

“Technology and innovation can create enticing and profitable openings, enterprises and occupations along the value chain of a sector that young people have come to denigrate as a backwater,” the UNDP report says.

Dr Shah described Africa’s agriculture as having great potential to capitalise on digital technologies and innovations that would transform it.

According to World Bank consultants Jeehye Kim, Akanksha Luthra and Vivek Prasad, digital technology is a game-changer for agri-food systems, because it dramatically reduces the cost of matching buyers to sellers.

Greater efficiency in upstream and downstream markets could further result in higher prices for farmers and more competition between middlemen, the trio say.

“Disruptive technologies could help distribute food, wealth and data, reduce hunger and waste, and empower farmers to produce more valuable, climate-resilient and nutritious foods for their clients,” said Dr Shah.

To encourage innovations in agriculture, the World Bank and its partners will support agri-tech initiatives in Kenya. The aim is to put one million Kenyan farmers on a digital platform over the next three years, under the One Million Farmer Initiative.

The initiative seeks to use technology to scale up food production.