How Digital Technology Is Changing Farming In Africa

By Staff Published: May 19, 2017, 1:00 am
Digital technology is changing farming in AfricaThinkstock

The world population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, and to feed that many people, global food production will need to grow by 70 percent.

Africa is projected to be home to about 2 billion people by then. Farm productivity on the continent must accelerate at a faster rate than the global average to avoid continued mass hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

From Harvard Business Review. Story by Ndubuisi Ekekwe.

For decades, African governments have used many policy instruments to improve farm productivity. But most farmers are still only marginally improving yields. Some continue to use traditional processes that depend heavily on historical norms, or use tools like hoes and cutlasses that have not evolved for centuries.

Those that do look to leverage new technologies run into financial issues. Foreign-made farm technologies remain unappealing to farmers in Africa because they are cumbersome for those who control, on average, 1.6 hectares of farmland. What’s more, less than 1% of commercial lending goes into agriculture (usually to the few large-scale farmers), so smaller farms cannot acquire such expensive tools.

But this is about to change. African entrepreneurs are now interested in how farmers work and how they can help improve yields. The barrier of entry into farming technology has dropped, as cloud computing, computing systems, connectivity, open-source software, and other digital tools have become increasingly affordable and accessible.

For example, aerial images from satellites or drones, weather forecasts, and soil sensors are making it possible to manage crop growth in real time. Automated systems provide early warnings if there are deviations from normal growth or other factors.

Beyond precision farming, financial solutions designed for farmers are blossoming and web technologies bring farming advice, weather forecasts, market information, and financial tips to farmers, who are traditionally out of reach, due to barriers in connectivity, literacy, or language.

Major global corporations have tried to advance digitalization of African agriculture by launching payment systems, credit platforms, and digital insurance. But to serve largely subsistence farmers, they have to compete against the local startups — particularly on cost of service in a highly fragmented business, with no easy path to scale, owing to illiteracy, language, border constraints, and native dogmas. The microentrepreneurs with a specific focus on their domains have inherent advantages.

While it is still early to evaluate the impacts of this digitalization of farming systems in Africa, in terms of productivity and improvement of human welfare, there is already a promising trend: Technology is making farming exciting for young people. As they see that developing mobile apps alone cannot feed Africa, many will turn to farming as a business.

Read more at Harvard Business Review.


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