Expanding data access and digital take-up among Africa’s smallholder farmers

Digital agricultural solutions represent a broad range of technologies and practices that can help reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while boosting productivity and income.

Deployment of innovations such as precision agriculture, data aggregation and analysis, satellite imaging, robotics, and automation can help producers increase efficiencies and yields and drive entrepreneurship.

A study of African producers in 2019 found that adoption of digital agricultural solutions typically improved incomes by 20-40%. Adoption of digital advisory services led on average to a 20% improvement in yield, while digital financial and market linkage services led to improvements of 40% and 70% respectively.

But as Ms. Ethel Delali Cofie, from Women in Tech Africa, asked the assembled panelists, how do we ensure digital solutions for African agriculture develop sustainably? And now do we ensure the most disadvantaged smallholders are not left behind?

Mr. Liam Condon, President of Bayer Crop Science, began by reaffirming the potential impact of digital agriculture solutions in Africa. “The possibilities for digital in Africa are endless,” he said. “Thanks to monitoring, drones, remote sensors and AI, data is everywhere.” In its effort to unlock this digital potential and achieve “health for all, hunger for none”, Bayer is prioritizing data access among smallholder famers.

To increase data access on the ground, said Condon, “we have to develop a mindset of collaboration and partnership; we have to work with partners who are locally relevant”. Only by tapping into local knowhow will we build digital ecosystems that are relevant to local stakeholders, enabling connectivity that helps smallholder farmers “become vibrant members of a vibrant economy”.

Next, Dr Denis Kyetere, Executive Director at AATF, summarized the impediments to digital take-up among rural communities, including prohibitive costs, restricted access capacity, and poor-quality content. To overcome these challenges, Dr Kyetere explained that “an enabling environment is critical…we need clear business models to encourage the private sector to invest”. He also referred to other key measures, including the integration of digital culture and the expansion of digital education for young people.

According to Hon. Joseph Mucheru, Cabinet Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications, “total alignment” is essential to drive progress in the rollout of sustainable digital solutions.

With “technology at the heart of everything we are doing in Kenya”, Hon Mucheru explained how “digitization policies and legislation need to be aligned with data on the ground”. Training in data access and use also needs to be extended to farmers, academics, and private sector stakeholders alike, again ensuring alignment of knowledge and capabilities.

Investment in infrastructure, meanwhile, is required to improve digital connectivity and access. To this end, Kenya is building data centers to ensure the country has the requisite processing capacity in place. Because only with the “right tech” and data will Kenya be able to increase agricultural production volumes and avoid the price-hikes for maize, rice and other key crops expected in the next ten years.

The next two panelists, Amrote Abdella, Director of 4Afrika at Microsoft, and Leesa Shrader from Mercy Corps, spoke of the need to develop integrated platforms to expand digital access to smallholders.

“Following recent crises on the continent,” said Shrader, “we’re finding a real dynamic shift in farmers interacting via their mobiles; they desperately need information and services.” To meet these needs, both Microsoft and Mercy Corps are exploring “platform approaches…that are very country context specific and bring lots of services”. Open, agnostic platforms for content sharing and chat services were recommended as a means of reducing duplication and cost in content generation.

Shrader also spoke about “cluster approaches” to reaching women with digital solutions. “Women’s cooperatives,” said Shrader, “are a fabulous way to bring women into the digital world”. But data sharing rules that protect the user will be critical to getting more women ‘on-grid’ safely and securely.

Returning to the theme of collaboration, Marisa Soares from Yara outlined the importance of working together to engage farmers during the pandemic and digitize retail networks to ensure full traceability. Ultimately, she said, “we need a coming together of minds, talent and resources to achieve this” and unlock the potential of digital.