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“Digitalisation is not a replacement but a complementary process”

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Interview with Edward Mabaya

Edward Mabaya, manager of agribusiness development at the African Development Bank, explores what is needed to scale digital projects in Africa’s food market to achieve development on the continent.

Why do you feel digitalisation is so important for agriculture?

To answer that excellent question, one needs to step back and recognise that agriculture is central to the economic development of the Africa continent. A large percentage of the population in Africa relies on agriculture for livelihoods, and yet Africa is still importing about US$50 billion (€45 billion) a year worth of processed food annually despite the vast agriculture production potential. Along with this big challenge, there is huge opportunity of feeding Africa; the food market in Africa is projected to reach about US$1 trillion (€0.9 trillion) by 2030.

So, while Africa has not yet achieved its green revolution, it is well poised to take advantage of the digitalisation revolution. In a way, this is the first revolution that Africa seems to be fully on board with. In recent years, internet connectivity and mobile phone penetration have been rising faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world and there is a lot of innovation taking place across the continent. Thus, there is a unique opportunity to use this momentum and to use this digital frontier to pull along the agricultural sector for continental development.

Agriculture, at its core, has not changed much for the last 100 years; crops still need fertiliser, good seed, sunshine, soil and water to grow. As development partners we need to continue to work on delivering these core ingredients to improve agricultural productivity on the continent. What is new with digitalisation is that we can deliver these solutions faster, cheaper and more efficiently to smallholder farmers in ways that could not have been done before. So digital solutions are an enabler and it is important to keep reminding ourselves that digitalisation is not a replacement to our previous activities, but is a complementary process to allow us to provide more targeted solutions to farmers more rapidly and cost-effectively.

What are the main challenges to scaling digital solutions for achieving impact and what needs to be done to overcome them?

First of all, I am excited about the prospects of these new and different solutions that are bringing a breath of fresh air to a sector like agriculture which seems to be dealing with perennial problems of low productivity, pests, diseases and climate change. We have numerous solutions across the continent and, according to the CTA/Dalberg report, The Digitalisation of African Agriculture, in 2018 there were at least 365 ICT and digital solutions actively operating in the African agricultural space reaching out to around 32 million smallholder farmers. These are impressive numbers for something that is relatively new, but they are nowhere near reaching the hundreds of millions more smallholder farmers who are needed to transform agriculture in Africa.

Most of these solutions are still very much in the pilot phase and we know that Africa needs more than just pilots; we need projects that can be scaled up fast. There are numerous challenges for achieving scale, some of which are highlighted in the report, but I want to speak to two key challenges – limited financing and the lack of large-scale platforms.

With financing, we know every revolution requires somebody to bank roll it in order to achieve scale. Most of the ICT projects that we have out there are stepped up small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) that have developed unique digital solutions that seem to be applicable but, for them to reach a larger number of farmers, large-scale financing is needed for project expansion within a very short time. We see a key role for development finance institutions, such as the African Development Bank. To that end, we have recently launched the ‘Digital Solutions for African Agriculture’ flagship initiative, which will support governments and the private sector in introducing and scaling up digital solutions along the agricultural value chain.

Regarding large-scale platforms, most SMEs are interested in developing their own databases and retaining as much of that information for themselves as possible and monetising that data. However, we know that scaling up requires a platform that is big enough so that the different, unique applications share information and data and allow the farmer to benefit the most and to ensure that the same information is not collected each time a farmer registers with an application. These large-scale platforms must be interoperable, meaning that they are able to exchange and make use of information across different products or systems. Governments have a unique role to play in developing these large-scale platforms. Any new applications or tools that are useful to farmers can be linked to the platform. We cannot achieve scale if every small project is uniquely interested in keeping information to themselves. The creation of large-scale platforms is critical to scaling up digital solutions to achieve the transformative impact that is needed across the continent.

How will the recent CTA/Dalberg digitalisation report inform the African Development Bank’s work on digitalisation?

The timing of this report could not be any better; at the same time that this report came out, we launched our flagship programme on ‘Digital Solutions for African Agriculture’ and are still very much in the early stages of developing that initiative. The report was useful in mapping out the landscape of digital agriculture across the continent – it provides a comprehensive description of who is doing what, where they are doing it, and at what scale. Before this report came out, most players in this space were acting on very limited information. Now, with all this information about the players, the tools and the issues to be addressed, it is much easier to design projects in different countries.

I am delighted to have been part of the team that peer reviewed this report, which now serves as a reference manual for many institutions that are working within the digital agriculture space. For my team in the African Development Bank, The Digitalisation of African Agriculture report has been a useful document, especially with informing governments about the numerous potentials that digitalisation presents. We are using the report already in the early stages of designing projects and I think we will continue to utilise it as a key reference document.