The potential for new technology to support African smallholders deserves greater attention, Toby Johnson, communications team leader at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) writes.
Farmers worldwide are facing huge challenges to meet rising demand with increasingly scarce resources but this situation is most acute in Africa.
With the fastest growing population in the world, the continent’s ageing smallholders shoulder the burden to produce ever more food.
Meanwhile, Africa is also suffering the most extreme impacts of climate change, putting extra pressure on water and land.
But there is huge promise for new technologies and innovations to help improve productivity, profitability and sustainability for African smallholders and agripreneurs, and this should be higher on the international agenda.
Firstly, producing more food for a growing population will require more young people to enter agribusiness.
African leaders have committed themselves to creating new jobs for at least 30 per cent of the youth in agricultural value chains by 2025, but most young people have little or no interest in agriculture.
With the average age of farmers in Africa still at 55-60 years old, we must ask ourselves how we can transform the rural landscape and make it much more attractive for young people.
Digitalisation can provide a potentially profitable entry point for them, with the added benefits of boosting productivity, income, increased food and nutrition security.
Secondly, increasing productivity while using fewer resources in a changing climate will mean smallholders need to adopt smarter, more precise techniques.
The wealth of information now available to us through satellites, drones and artificial intelligence can help smallholders farm with greater efficiency and accuracy, making them more resilient to extreme conditions like droughts or flooding.
Yet while smallholders produce around 70 per cent of Africa’s food supplies, only 60 per cent of Africans have internet connections, limiting their access to key information and knowledge such as weather forecasts, market data and farming advice.
Finally, embracing digitalisation in Africa can help achieve broader development goals such as better incomes.
Digitalisation affords young entrepreneurs the opportunity to create disruptive business models, leapfrogging traditional stages of development while there are claims that leveraging technology to increase access to information could boost rural incomes by up to 60 per cent.
CTA, an EU-funded institution, works across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, to support the roll-out of new services and innovations using cutting edge technology.
This has included providing farmers with instant weather updates via SMS, or supporting them with satellite-gathered data and analysis to help guide decisions on fertiliser or pesticide use.
Over the last three years, CTA’s Pitch AgriHack challenge has also reached more than 800 young e-agriculture start-ups, providing training, mentoring and business development skills and seed funding. Several of the supported start-ups have grown into successful businesses serving close to one million smallholder producers
But there is an enormous amount of potential that requires collaboration between the public and private sector to unlock.
This was recognised at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin, which focused on “smart solutions for future farming”, with an emphasis on the opportunity of digitalisation.
The event, attended by agriculture ministers as well as private sector actors, was a great opportunity to bring together the parties that can scale up digitalisation to transform African agriculture.
From blockchain technology for greater transparency and efficiency, to artificial intelligence that automates information services, there are ever more exciting and emerging ways to equip smallholders to be more productive and more resilient.
I hope the dialogue at the GFFA helped to propel the mobilisation of young African innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and governments to capitalise on digitalisation’s potential.
Featured photo credit: USAID