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Digital Thinking to Transform Africa’s Food System

Digital Thinking to Transform Africa’s Food System

Overcoming Isolation, Speeding Up Change, and Taking Success to Scale

By Kofi Annan, Chair, Kofi Annan Foundation; Seventh Secretary General, United Nations, Sam Dryden, Senior Fellow, Imperial College London, Former Director of Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College London; Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs.

In the past decade, the global conversation about Africa has shifted from how hopeless to how hopeful its story is. Many observers see a great future for the continent. We do, too, and if that future is to come to fruition, it will be because the continent’s leaders helped create a thriving rural economy based on the effort and ingenuity of smallholder farmers. If Africa’s evolving food system leaves those same farmers behind, however, the continent will not reach its immense potential.

For the past several years, the authors of the essays have been participating in an energetic and ongoing discussion with each other and with other leaders about food systems and the transformation of Africa. In this collection, they capture the spirit of that discussion by asking and trying to answer the question, “How can Africa’s family farmers drive the development of a thriving rural economy across Africa?”

Over 80 percent of Africa’s farmers are smallholder farmers, living in poverty and farming less than two hectares with low levels of production. Many are women who are less able than their male counterparts to access secure rights to land and the inputs for their farms. Nevertheless, we know from experience that they can be highly innovative.

There is much good news coming out of Africa. The incidence of conflicts is declining, stable macroeconomic policies are encouraging investment, and many countries have high growth rates, including in agriculture. A growing urban population is demanding more food, including more varied and nutritious diets.

Some trends are more mixed in their effects. There is growing investment in large commercial farms, foreign and domestically owned, but in some cases, this investment is causing rural people to lose their land rights. The rapidly growing population of young people provides a potential work force, but they are often not attracted to agriculture.

There are also major threats. The land is degrading rapidly. Over 25 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s land is seriously degraded. A changing climate is already having highly adverse effects. One estimate suggests there may be a 20 percent increase in malnutrition and hunger by 2020.

Yet there are experiences and tools at hand, both in research stations and in farmers’ hands, that can help withstand the adverse trends and capitalize on the many opportunities. Foremost among these are digital technologies, both hardware (mobile telephones, satellites, supercomputers) and software (applications to facilitate decision-making, digital soil maps, and faster breeding cycles for traditional African crops). There are myriad uses of digital technologies in Africa, beginning eight years ago with the pioneering creation of mobile banking in Kenya.

Ultimately, the combination of the technology itself and human creativity in deploying the technology can revolutionize life for family farmers in three ways.

By overcoming isolation. Many African smallholder farmers live far from cities and towns and are often poorly served by roads. Markets that provide inputs or purchase outputs may be many kilometers away and essentially inaccessible. Digital technology has the potential to effectively shorten the distance between previously isolated smallholders and the other components of the food value chain. For example, it can speed up the supply of inputs through e-vouchers and real-time tracking of inventory. The eWallet system in Nigeria was developed as a means for government to identify and provide input subsidies directly to farmers. Smallholder farmers provide their personal and biometric information and, once registered, can use their eWallets (via a mobile phone or a unique identification code) to make purchases from agro-dealers.

By speeding up change. Traditional extension is a ponderous process relying on poorly paid extension workers to travel from farm to farm or village to village. Digital Green uses technology-enabled dissemination based on projectors and web portals in local languages that greatly speeds up the transfer of information while improving its quality and relevance. Local access to credit can also be made more timely and efficient through digital technology, as can access to micro-insurance. The marketing of farmer products can be made more accessible through SMS messages that provide information on prices offered for crops in different market locations. Farmers no longer have to wait for buyers to come to them; they can actively seek out better deals.

By taking success to scale. Throughout Africa there are numerous successful projects and programs delivering greater yields, more nutritious foods, higher incomes, accessible fairer markets, and benefiting more women. Many are intrinsically sustainable. The challenge many organizations have taken on is determining how to scale them up. The Alliance for a Green Revolution is ensuring key inputs such as improved seed, blended fertilizers, credit and micro-insurance are accessible on an extended basis. The World Food Program’s Purchase for Progress Program helps create stable and fair markets on which smallholder farmers can depend. A key component of going to scale is the generation, analysis, and accessibility of mega-data. One example, developed by the Agricultural Transformation Agency of Ethiopia, is EthioSIS, a digital soil map that provides information for more tailored soil management practices.

The breadth and depth of the ideas in these articles point the way toward a dynamic future for African smallholder farmers and Africa in general. We hope that they spark more conversation and, eventually, powerful action to create a future for Africa that matches Africans’ aspirations.