The digital revolution
In ACP countries agriculture is the key economic player, employing between 40-60% of populations and contributing between 25-45% of gross domestic product.
Traditionally the sector has been characterised by highly impoverished farmers using old-fashioned farming techniques resulting in low productivity levels. With no choice but to deal with exploitative middlemen, the sector has always been vulnerable to famine and food insecurity. But now, “ICTs are creating a revolution; all the way from extension to marketing, to agro-input services, to banking and financial services, to certification management,” says Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
In 1971, Alan Kay, an American computer scientist said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This exemplifies the proliferation of agricultural applications supported by web, mobile and radio platforms. These apps empower farmers in developing countries by providing them with advance price information for different produce, or by predicting weather or disease patterns for early preparedness. Farmers now have access to information on agricultural production at their fingertips.
Hailu explains that these applications “provide farmers with timely advice and information, enable them to increase productivity, access markets to become efficient, and increase incomes along the value chain.” It is also important to remember that smallholder farmers, mostly women, produce 80% of the food in Africa. However, they face many challenges including low productivity, high energy and fertiliser prices, lack of access to credit, and poor or non-existent extension advisory services. “One cannot over emphasise the importance of agriculture in achieving food and nutritional security and prosperity in ACP countries, as well as in much of the developing world,” emphasises Hailu.
A digital springboard
During the Plug and Play day, innovators showcased around 40 ICT solutions addressing different aspects of the value chain in ACP countries. Some of the apps showcased included mFarm and iCow from Kenya, Kinu from Tanzania, Esoko from Ghana, Farmerline from Nigeria, mFisheries from Trinidad and Tobago, Trac FM from Uganda, Rural eMarket from Madagascar, and AGRICO from Burkina Faso, among others.
mFarm, uses simple data to ‘mPower’ farmers, says co-founder Susan Oguya. She argues that mFarm has created ‘armchair farmers’ and has attracted youth to the sector as producers, marketers, input suppliers and content developers.
Esoko, an application enabling farmers to access market prices, weather forecasts, agricultural tips, and offers for their produce, has over 2.5 million users across 16 African countries (Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). “The purpose of the application is to put more money in smallholder farmers’ pockets,” says Mark Davies, Esoko’s chief executive, adding that app usage has seen returns for many smallholders increase by between 10-15% annually. “Some have gained as much as 500% in returns on improved prices,” he states.
Rural eMarket, besides offering information on prices, productivity, and market access, also offers farmers information on how to access financial services. “Farmers can sell their produce, view other people’s offers, view demands or requests, update demand requests, and view which products are available in which markets and at what prices. Farmers are also able to search for financial services, especially in microfinance,” says Andrianjafy Rasoanindrainy, Rural eMarket’s project coordinator.
Transforming smallholder farming
“ICTs have made it easy for people to facilitate new ways of cooperation and co-create new innovations among stakeholders,” argues Paul Cunningham, IST Africa Initiative’s co-founder. Many other applications are creating global networks of farmers to share ideas and information by way of videos, pictures or text towards sustainable agriculture and rural development. For example, in December 2013, Access Agriculture, an international NGO, unveiled a network of YouTube farmers through its AgTube application to help farmers interact with each other by uploading videos for sharing with the agricultural community.
In South Sudan, the government’s efforts to woo warring agro-pastoralist communities by advocating adoption of smart farming techniques could bring lasting peace in a country that has been scarred by decades of war. For instance, in Warrap State (one of 10 states), cattle rustling is a serious threat to the socio-economic activities of communities. But planned introduction of mobile cinemas for display in different parts of the state could support agricultural initiatives. The rollout of ojoVoz, a mobile and web application allowing farmers to send voice recording and images using their phones to the internet, is part of the strategy to add value to agricultural initiatives. The app also helps to map water points, which are usually hotspots of conflicts by warring clans. “Smartphones are also to be issued to cattle camp and state leaders as part of an initiative to encourage people into the agricultural value chain,” says Eva Yayi, IT officer at Community Empowerment for Progress in South Sudan.
In Kenya, there are around 25 agricultural applications listed by the Ministry of Agriculture that offer credible information and act as extension services, to provide information to farmers who have access to mobile phones even in very remote areas of the country. Some farmers have even created a network of young Facebook farmers as a market place of ideas and transactions.
Attracting youth to farming
“With rapidly increasing mobile phone coverage and internet connectivity, the transformative potential of ICTs can be particularly harnessed in the agricultural sector to reach smallholder farmers, particularly in rural areas, while reducing transaction costs,” says Michael Ryan, the European Union ambassador to Rwanda. This presents a good opportunity, especially for the youth to get back into the agricultural value chain rather than migrating from rural to urban areas in search of elusive white collar jobs.
The rural-urban migration of youth is a major problem across ACP countries, but ICTs play a key role in stemming this trend by creating employment opportunities and also improving quality of life in rural areas. Broadband connectivity and access to mobile phones not only presents a significant opportunity for increasing agricultural productivity, even in remote villages, but also by luring the youth back to farms.
CTA’s Agricultural Rural Development and Youth in the Information Society project is helping to promote ICT use among rural youth. Since its launch in 2010, the initiative has had a major impact on information-sharing, building capacity in all aspects of ICT innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture.
The ICT4Ag event drew close to 500 participants from several sectors including government, the private sector, the NGO community, intergovernmental bodies, and development agencies from 66 countries. Young people from Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda also participated in an Agri-Hackathon Championship to develop ICT applications addressing specific needs in the agricultural ecosystem.
Some of the apps are tailored to run on mobile and web platforms to increase access to finance, connect and harmonise stakeholders in agriculture, enhance farmers’ creditworthiness, collect and share market price data, and connect and harmonise key youth stakeholders along the agricultural value chain. Eastern Africa has, for instance, become increasingly connected to the internet: 75% of Kenya’s population has access to a mobile phone and the number of internet users stands at slightly over 12% of a population of 40 million people as of June 2012, according to Internet World Stats.
The Rwandan government is particularly keen to boost its agricultural sector from an annual growth of 5.5% to 8.5% in 5 years through investments in ICTs. “We would like to create 200,000 jobs every year off the farm. That will not happen without ICTs,” says Valentine Rugwabiza, chief executive officer of Rwanda Development Board.
Despite the existence of abundant land, water and cheap labour African countries still spend around €36 billion importing food annually. “To achieve its full potential, smallholder agriculture must be transformed from a subsistence activity to a profitable sustainable business, and clearly, ICTs can play a key role in this transformation,” concludes Hailu. The ICT4Ag 2013 conference showcased this emerging reality.