Digitalisation is only part of the solution

Opinion: Digitalisation

by Nawsheen Hosenally

For many years now, we have been talking about the importance of making agriculture attractive to youth, so that they are involved along the value chain and contribute to food security and the reduction of hunger. In the process, one hypothesis that has come up is that with agriculture’s digitalisation, youth will become interested in starting a career in the sector, and at the same time, agriculture will become more insight-driven, efficient and productive. But how far is this true?

No ‘silver bullet’ solution

In my opinion, ICTs are very powerful tools that can indeed change the way we do business and modernise agriculture in Africa. However, digitalisation is no silver bullet when it comes to attracting youth to agriculture. For a young person, flying a drone over their farm to check for pests and diseases and apply pesticide, monitoring crop growth using an iPad, and using a mobile application to check market information, is much more appealing than the traditional image of a smallholder farmer, working with a hoe under the scorching sun and struggling to get a good price for his produce. On the other hand, digitalisation is costly and technologies are not always affordable for young farmers; it also requires certain infrastructure and expertise that we cannot take for granted.

Sharing the success of young agripreneurs

In 2016, I co-founded Agribusiness TV to change the narrative around agriculture and showcase success stories of young agricultural entrepreneurs from Africa. The primary objective of the web TV is to inspire youth to get involved in agriculture through videos. In two years, Agribusiness TV has produced over 100 videos, which have been viewed more than 8 million times. Feedback from entrepreneurs demonstrates that with the visibility that they get from the videos, they have been able to establish new contacts, gain new partners and eventually increase sales and revenue. As for the young audience, many have shared their interest in venturing into agribusiness, and some of them have actually got into agriculture after watching our videos. In this sense, digitalisation can certainly be used to attract youth to the sector.

Developing a sustainable business model

In the last 5 years, many web and mobile applications have been developed by youth to solve identified agricultural challenges. The most common model for the creation of digital solutions for agriculture has been through competitions and grants. But, as I mentioned before, digitalisation is costly and ICT-enabled agribusiness start-ups are often difficult to sustain. For example, a young person can develop a digital solution that provides market prices and weather information for farmers in a certain region. Technically, the solution might work, but the problem that often arises, is who will pay for the service? For me, this is one of the biggest problems with digitalisation in agriculture. For such a solution to be economically viable, you need hundreds of thousands of subscribers to use the service. It takes time to educate farmers and convince them that the digital solution is a valuable investment by showing them how the information provided will actually increase sales. Developing a viable business model to sustain such digital solutions is still a work in progress. There is very little evidence that shows that the use of digitalisation by youth in agriculture is actually working as a sustainable business.

Digitalisation is only part of the solution when it comes to attracting youth to agriculture. The starting point should, in fact, be about identifying what attracts youth to agriculture. The digital component is definitely important, but from my experience working with youth in agriculture, the first thing they say that has kept them in the sector is the passion they have for what they do. Others are attracted by the potential that agriculture has to improve livelihoods. Hence, it is important to find a balance and see where digitalisation can fit into the picture.