Albert Einstein once said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” Imagine a small, square table. It is collecting and recording the crucial data that people who participate in the agricultural value chain at the farm level need to enhance their productivity. This data includes information on soil pH, moisture, temperature, the sun’s intensity and air humidity. Imagine this table can wirelessly transmit the recorded data to a cloud server, from where farmers can access it on a mobile app and get real-time data. Imagine that this table is powered by a built-in solar panel, which charges it.
You have just imagined a simple electronic “farm diary”, an invention by a young person from Nigeria. With this e-diary, he is decentralising the functionality of an entire weather station, bringing it down to the village level and enabling up to 500 000 farmers in remote places to know what, when and where to plant, using nothing more than their mobile phones. In addition this young man is creating opportunities for himself. His solution is to build equity – currently valued at US$15 million and growing.
This is an example of the power of “big data” and its capacity to create multiple opportunities across sectors, leveraging on agriculture as the starting point. Such big data applications are being used around the globe to optimise farms that have to continue to produce harvests despite the changing climate. From anticipating natural disasters, such as droughts and flooding, to predicting the best time to harvest crops and anticipating outbreaks of pests and disease before they impact on farmers’ produce, big data is averting losses and maximising yields in this era of climate change, when increasingly variable conditions are projected to reduce yields in Africa by a massive 40%.
How technology will impact food security in Africa over the next five to 10 years
“In every adversity lies seeds of equal or greater benefit,” the saying goes. Immense challenges equally represent immense enterprise opportunities for those who devise solutions to them. Technology will be at the heart of unlocking such solutions. Every year, Africa loses $48 billion worth of food to post–harvest losses and spends US$35 billion per annum importing food. Simply reversing these losses would mean recouping more than US$83 billion each year in annual enterprise opportunities within local economies. This is the future that Africa should be aiming for over the next five to 10 years.
Technology will be key to unlocking these opportunities. Under the changing climate, shifting climate patterns means, for instance, that some cereal crops, like maize, which were traditionally harvested in the dry season, are now harvested at peak rains. This is already happening in Rwanda, for example. As a result, farmers who do not have access to adequate drying facilities will not be able to dry their produce to acceptable moisture levels before storing it, resulting in pest infestation, mold and contamination. The result: large quantities of their cereals will be unsellable – and suddenly, security of food and a livelihood turns to the despair of dry storehouses, empty pockets and hungry homes.
However, simple solar driers, equipped with auxiliary bio-gas fired drying kilns, which are already available in the market, can ensure that such cereal crops are adequately dried even when there is high precipitation. And since clean energy is being used, this can be done without piling on the emissions that worsen climate change.
The purchasing of solutions such as the bio-gas fired drying kilns would require financing, and this brings the myriad of fintech solutions into the picture. One example of such a solution is the digital loans that are becoming commonplace. A group of farmers can come together, each taking out a digital loan, and pool their cumulative loans to acquire such a drier, which can then be used communally. And just like that we have the US$83 billion in annual enterprise opportunities being tapped by actors in agriculture, clean energy, ICT and finance. This is how Africa’s significant advantage of having 65% of the world’s arable land will be unlocked to create the 750 000 additional jobs that we need to create every month.
Africa is ready for Agriculture 4.0
Digital agriculture – in other words, the use of big data and fintech to enhance agro-productivity, as we have discussed above – or what is referred to as “Agriculture 4.0”, is already under way in Africa. In Kenya, we have the EBAgroPamoja application www.ebagraopamoja.org, which connects people in the agro-value chain to solutions in clean energy, logistics, finance, and more. This is helping to convert US$500 million of Kenya’s post-harvest losses into enterprise opportunities for actors across different sectors. Blockchain solutions are also enabling more accurate credit scoring in agriculture to turn the more than US$300 billion lending gap in Africa’s informal sector, including the “mama mbogas” in our estates, into enterprise opportunities.
This is just a small sample to show that Africa is already part of Agriculture 4.0. The bigger question now is how such solutions can be upscaled to become mainstream solutions across the continent.
What would enable stakeholders in the value chain to drive the adoption of technology?
Policy: Africa’s biggest challenge is not necessarily a lack of enabling policies but rather how to implement these policies to derive value. As an example, Kenya’s ICT policy objectives to enhance access to ICTs, including broadband connectivity, have been quite successful in urban areas. However, a journey to the rural, remote areas of Kenya, where the majority of the population resides, will reveal that people there do not enjoy affordable and accessible Internet connectivity for their phones, something that is now commonplace in almost every urban and peri-urban area in Kenya.
To maximise the impact of this policy in rural areas, ICT policy should work in tandem with other infrastructure policies, such as energy decentralisation and transport policies, as well as agriculture, industry and rural development policies, among the key ones. The goal is to deliver a full–stack incentive package for telecommunications companies that will make investing in high–quality ICT connectivity infrastructure that specifically targets rural agro-enterprise a profitable venture. This means roads policies that prioritise the linking of rural production sites to markets and collection points. Such developments would send a clear message, namely that an agro-enterprise in rural area can efficiently transport to markets and enhance profitability. In turn, this would make it worthwhile to invest in ICT solutions that target agriculture.
What it also requires is energy policies that prioritise off-grid solutions that would guarantee adequate power and ensure that agro-processing enterprises are powered affordably.
It requires trade policies that assure rural producers of lucrative markets, meaning an enterprise can gather adequate sales to propel it to profitability. It means finance and cooperatives policies that incentivise local cooperatives to lend affordably to rural agro-enterprises. This would allow such enterprises to access capital to expand its operations. It is such targeted and coherent polices that would send clear signals and result in investment in quality ICT solutions in rural areas.
Skills realignment: The best way to position one’s skills is to apply them in the solving of challenges in a lucrative area. In this era of global competitiveness, Africa’s best chance and the shortest route to ascend into global competitiveness is maximising the productivity of our advantage areas. We have the most of the globe’s arable land – as much as 65% of it – as well as a significant proportion of the globe’s renewable energy resources. This means that Africa’s competitive niche is in industrialised agriculture powered by clean energy.
Because of certain strategic advantages, Africa has the potential to build a US$1 trillion economy by 2030.
Because of these strategic advantages, Africa has the potential to build a US$1 trillion economy by 2030. ICT should tap this niche for organic upscaling. This demands that the ICT skills that are being taught should be aligned and refined to enable the exchange of value in such sustainable, clean energy–powered agro-industrial enterprises. ICT, through the blockchains, for instance, can be used to facilitate energy trade among a community of users in off-grid areas, where a balance of electricity allocation among different demand centres would ensure the optimal use of available capacity. It would also guard against investment in an oversupply of power. ICT training should therefore focus on equipping the youth in such areas to provide relevant, competitive solutions in Africa’s “low-hanging fruit” area of clean energy–powered agro-industrialisation.
Future disruptions in agriculture
What is of crucial importance are the ways in which ICT proves its relevance by bridging gaps in agriculture productivity, especially gaps in access to actionable weather and market data. This is where big data applications, access to finance and blockchains will be key to unlock new credit frontiers in the informal sector.
Insurance services will be in demand, so risk management– especially given the ever-increasing climate risks that our planet is facing – is another crucial frontier.
Digital applications provide an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog into a new world in agriculture.
Such digital agriculture applications provide an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog into a new world in agriculture, similar to what happened in mobile banking and mobile telephony. The expansion of such digital solutions in agriculture is the core of anticipated future disruptions in Africa’s agriculture. Examples are the following: The increased application of digital solutions, such as blockchains for credit scoring, must enable the expansion of credit financing in agriculture. Big data solutions must provide more advanced weather and market price information. Digital agriculture insurance must be delivered through mobile apps, given the increased risks occasioned by climate change. Currently, less than 1% of Africa’s small-holders are insured – the lowest of any developing region globally. Such digital solutions are the core of future disruptions that would benefit Africa’s agriculture and the people who work in it.
Dr Richard Munang is UN Environment’s Africa climate change and development policy expert. These are the author’s personal views, not those of his institution.