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Michael Hailu: “Digitalisation: a game changer in transforming smallholder agriculture”

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Interview with Michael Hailu

As CTA launch a landmark report on digitalisation in agriculture in Africa, Michael Hailu, director of CTA highlights his hopes that the report will help inform other actors and inspire and engage investors by identifying impact and investment opportunities in this critical sector.

Digitalisation is a key part of CTA’s strategy and is integrated into all the other areas that you are focusing on, but how is CTA supporting the development and dissemination of effective digital technologies in particular?

CTA has been active in this space for many years as one of the forefront organisations working to mainstream digitalisation, especially for smallholder agriculture. So there are several interventions that CTA has been working on over the last few years. One area is to identify exciting digital innovations that are emerging and test them, pilot them and see how they can be integrated into smallholder agricultural value chains. Take drones, for example – which are fairly new within the agricultural sector. We have been working with suppliers of drone technologies and young entrepreneurs in ACP regions to see how this technology can help provide real-time information for farmers to improve productivity, and at the same time create opportunities for young people. Another example is blockchain; we have recently launched a project supporting young entrepreneurs to develop the application of blockchain to address specific value chain challenges, for example, improve traceability of agricultural products to fetch higher prices for farmers.

We have also been supporting young innovators with coaching and mentoring having identified the most promising ones through ‘Pitch AgriHack’ competitions, which we run across the ACP. The competitions are usually focused on a specific agricultural challenge. Through a call we reach out to a large number young innovators, select a short list of 20-25, bring them together to a boot-camp, select the winners and support them through a process of coaching, training and incubation. Many of the winners and runners-up already have a start-up business, so we try to help them develop the businesses further; and some are just starting, so we try to help them conceptualise their business model. Through this programme, CTA has reached out to more than 800 young innovators across the ACP and many of them have become successful, running effective businesses and reaching tens of thousands of smallholder producers through their services.

It is a big space, one where a lot of innovation is happening, which is also involving young people. This is all encouraging, but what excites you most about it?

I think what is most exciting is the speed at which digitalisation in agriculture is developing, particularly in Africa. In 2013, when CTA organised a big international conference on ‘ICT4Ag’ in Rwanda, there was really very little activity happening in the space. But in the last 5 to 6 years, as you will see in our digitalisation report, there has been a huge increase in new digital solutions coming into the market, as well as interest from major donors and governments to really leverage digitalisation to transform smallholder agriculture. So, we feel that CTA has been a pioneer in this area and now big players are coming together and mainstreaming it into the sector.

Even though you have been working in this area for some time, CTA is still a relatively small organisation compared to many of the big players. What role do you feel that CTA plays compared to other actors in the sector?

Although CTA is small, it is really playing a key catalytic role as a knowledge hub, facilitating exchange of lessons and experiences and thereby making these innovations more accessible to entrepreneurs and farmers. We do a lot of work identifying emerging technologies, sharing lessons, publishing information around these innovations, and we have also supported many young entrepreneurs, through which we have been able to leverage our limited investment. CTA has been playing a key role as a promoter of digital innovations for smallholder agriculture but, of course, we have also made our own investment and, given that the overall market size is rather small, our own investment has been quite reasonable. Of course, as the market grows, our share becomes smaller, but I think more than anything, CTA’s role is creating visibility, sharing experience and keeping track of what is happening, which I think no other organisation is doing at the moment.

A key activity for CTA this year is the publishing of this report on digitalisation in agriculture in Africa, what is the report revealing that is going to be useful in taking this agenda and programme of work forward?

First of all, this is probably the first time that anyone has really looked at the space closely: what does the ecosystem look like; who are the key players; what is the reach of the various solutions; how many farmers or smallholders are actually using this service; what is the growth prospect and so on. Nobody has done this kind of examination of the current situation and then presented recommendations for different stakeholders, including the private sector, government and donors. We have come up with some interesting insights and we feel this report provides a baseline on which we can build upon, and track changes and developments in the future.

One of the key findings is that, across five use cases [1] , there are almost 33 million farmers that have been registered but, only 40% of registered farmers are making regular use of these services. That is quite an interesting insight that, in the future, we should be focusing a lot more attention on use as opposed to just increasing registration.

The other insight, which may not be surprising in terms of digital divides, is that women still only constitute about 25% of users, whereas youth account for 65% of the users. We, of course, know that women are not making as much use of technology as they should, and they constitute about 45% of the agricultural labour force. That is not surprising, as such, and confirms our belief that women are not well represented in technology use and the young, of course, will find farming more attractive with the application of these technologies.

But this report is on Africa, and we see that the largest number of users are concentrated in Eastern Africa, whereas the largest number of solutions are in West Africa, while Southern and Central Africa have a fairly small representation. These are some of the findings in the report.

This sector is evolving very quickly, people are taking interest, what do you think are the key challenges that really need to be addressed if this is going to go forward in a positive way?

You have the big challenge of digital infrastructure in the rural areas and about how these services can be more easily deployed. There is the whole issue of engaging farmers in value chains; we see that most of the active users are in what you call ‘tight’ value chains, where there is very clear linkage from producers to processors to markets. Some of the challenges have to do with enabling policies in different countries. For example, in Kenya you have a lot of private sector led solutions and activities because the policy environment has been quite encouraging for this kind of investment. So, there are a number of factors, including infrastructure and policy, which would promote more use of digital innovations in agriculture.

You will be sharing the report at a number of significant events and talking to policymakers and other donor organisations. If you had one key take away message from what this report is saying and what CTA is doing, what would that be?

I would say the key message is that digitalisation can be a real game changer in transforming smallholder agriculture in Africa, but it has to be given due importance in terms of policy and investment. Governments should take this as another key area which could make a huge difference in transforming agriculture, improving productivity, building resilience and creating opportunities for youth and women. So, my message would be that governments should take a serious look into leveraging digitalisation as part of their strategies to transform agriculture.       


[1] Advisory services, market linkages, financial services, supply chain management services, and macro agricultural intelligence services