Technology for agriculture in Africa: a fourth revolution without a third?
When is tech innovation in agriculture a leap too far?
The bright picture
Many economies across Sub-Saharan Africa remain predominantly agricultural and, due to an increase in global food demand and the availability of arable land across the continent - 60% of global uncultivated arable land is in Africa, according to the African Development Bank -, there seems to be a growing consensus around the idea of Africa as the final frontier of the Green Revolution in agriculture and the potential bread basket of the world. That technology has been revolutionising the way agriculture is conceived today is no surprise and, being the largest employer in the continent – over two thirds of total employment in Africa still come from agriculture -, the attention shift towards tech farming could be seen as the product of the increasing confidence in the potential role innovation can play in dramatically enhancing productivity and working standards.
Disrupt Africa explains how the ag-tech has grown by 110% since 2016, as a variety of services have sprung up at every corner of the African continent in less than a decade. These range from crowdfunding platforms for farmers – Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Somalia’s Ari Farm, and South Africa’s Livestock Wealth – which tap into the lack of financial capital for smallholding farmers, to companies using drones for precision agriculture – e.g. South African Aerobotics and Ivorian WeFlyAgri – on through solar-powered cold storages – Solar Freeze – and supply chain start-ups such as Kenyan Twiga Foods and Annona and Ghana’s Agrocenta. Companies such as Twiga Foods have been filling the supply chain vacuum by enabling farmers to be in touch with market kiosks thanks to a farm-to-fork model enabled by mobile technology whereby buyers and sellers can control orders and delivery through their mobile phone. Deliveries are then taken care of by Twiga Foods’ van fleet itself, which collects produce from farmers and distributes it across the kiosks at the market.
This article devotes particular attention to, and inspects the challenges faced by startups such as We Farm and mFarm, who strive to cauterise the socio-economic imbalances that keep smallholding farmers isolated from the markets by digitising the informational channels between the parties through mobile applications or peer-to-peer networks. These companies offer mobile based services that equip farmers with information about the markets and connect suppliers and buyers through of SMS technology, which remains the most accessible and widespread in rural regions. Thanks to applications like these, farmers have a better chance to identify optimal planting and harvesting times and therefore deploy resources in a more efficient manner, as well as regulate the food supply according to market needs. Similarly, organisations for sustainable farm management such as Agrocares allow to carry out soil testing and elaborate optimal fertiliser application plans to ensure the best yields.
The limits to digitisation: poverty, illiteracy and remoteness
Despite the optimism, many rural areas across Africa remain significantly poor and subject to a high degree of market failures such as the lack of transparent market information leading to volatile prices or information about fertiliser application and optimal soil management. This means that many farmers in Africa lag significantly behind the technological frontier and cannot benefit from the advanced technologies that would enable a much higher productivity and wipe out a great deal of challenges related to food security in these areas.
The Economist paints a typical picture of information failures in agricultural markets, as farmer Pauline toils for months to nurture and grow bananas, only to go to market and find a glut of bananas already there and realise the worthlessness of an otherwise highly profitable harvest. Pauline’s story is no exception. Farmers across the continent constantly face what economists Akerlof, Spence, and Stiglitz once codified under the name of asymmetric information – which earned them the Nobel Prize in 2001. From price fluctuations, to weather forecasts and soil conditions, on through crop diseases and data related to supply and demand, the challenges posed by geographical and technological remoteness represent significant obstacles to healthy farming. Tales abound of brokers who would take advantage of any lack of farmer knowledge to give lower prices whilst utilising the higher market prices in the city to gain as much profit as possible. It is a lottery and, currently, one of the most effective expedient farmers have is to buy lots of tickets, by planting and harvesting year-round to ensure some harvest gets a good price. Yet, this is a viable though risky option only for farmers with larger swathes of land, whilst small-scale farmers are left at the mercy of market volatility. Smallholding farmers, who constitute the vast majority of the rural population in Africa, simply lack adequate information and socio-economic power to take advantage of the available markets.
For instance, smallholders often lag behind when it comes to keeping up with the best practices of, say, fertiliser use. Further, because of the smallholders’ quasi-absent budget for experimentation, they are prompted to adopt top-down, one-size-fits-all recommendations applied to several areas, rather than contextualised measures. When these are not effective, farmers are left to pursue trial and error approaches to finding the best practice in livelihood conditions that leave little room for mistake – that is, whilst large agribusinesses have room for significant R&D investments, smallholding farmers cannot afford such freedoms.
Besides information asymmetries, a wider range of limitations prevents the smooth adoption of digital solutions in rural areas. First, there is an issue of real handset penetration, since many farmers do not own smartphones, which would be necessary to operate farm management apps. As highlighted by the GSMA in 2018’s Mobile Economy report, despite the rapid smartphone adoption across the continent (37% as of 2017), a significant share of rural population is still limited to feature phones. Further, subscriber penetration is below 50% and signal, especially in rural areas, is often poor, which results in the practical inability of the farmers in the field to efficiently access and benefit from useful information.
Another considerable hindrance farmers face to access crucial information is the physical isolation from markets due to 1) infrastructure gaps and 2) flaws in the supply chain. Whilst information – via mobile - can navigate rural areas and long distances, people and goods cannot as many farmers live in areas with limited or no road access. Thus, the technological contribution remains partial in that it cannot bypass the physical gaps dividing farmers from their buyers.
Finally, illiteracy in rural areas remains extremely high, slowing down the digitisation process due to the farmers’ inability to make use of mobile technologies. Further, because of a fundamental scepticism due to the adherence to traditional customs and the scarce education, devices are not necessarily the go-to vehicle to get market information. Farmers with access to multiple markets, smartphones and network coverage – who are supposedly the ideal customers for new mobile innovations, often resist the use of such technology as they are not able to trust it.
Trust, personal bonds, and the alternatives to technology adoption among farmers
The slow transition to technology farming neither does nor should imply that smallholders have not been reactive to the lack of trustworthy information and unscrupulous brokers who profit from such inability to carefully value market demand. Farmers have long been building social networks of trusty fellows in order to quickly share best practices on anything from harvesting to re-utilising successful composts or fertilisers – and who they are unlikely to dispose of for mobile apps in the short term.
The misperception of trust, practicality and replicability of best practices represents in fact a significant hurdle for any mobile-based service aiming at overnight replication as farmers seem more likely to be dependent on cultivating bonds of trusts among each other for initial adoption. Farmers on the whole are often conservative in their practices and are hard-pressed to change behaviours.
In volatile areas like rural Africa, where a bad season or a bad market price can abruptly eradicate a farmer’s business, persuading smallholders to try a brand new practice is a difficult task. Often experimentalism is seen among farmers owning sizeable land and able to risk one or two acres or try their luck by trying something new.
Additionally, new technologies do not always have 100% accuracy and farmers have complained about farm management platforms or software providing advice on which fertilisers or inputs to use due to their margin of failure to deliver the correct information, which caused instead yield loss.
The way forward
The adoption barrier remains a significant obstacle for new players as social conservatism, the reluctance of farmers to change habits, and a severe lack of education hold innovation back. It seems the first stage of any meaningful change in agricultural practice would require long term building of links with farming communities and cultivation, which is perhaps not suited to the short-term project timescales of the external actors involved, from NGOs to researchers, as well as the limited budget for R&D or trial-and-error start-ups enjoy.
To enable a major leap towards the use of the internet and technology to help farmers practice sustainable agriculture, two major foundational bridges need to be built:
The emphasis on information retention and regurgitation leads to developing skill-sets that are dangerously mismatched with the distinctive prerogatives of the internet era, where information abounds and where a key trap consist of being able to select relevant resources. Through this lens, finding the right strategy to transfer knowledge becomes the fundamental quest for emerging companies and governments as the failure to deliver accurate inputs results in a sterile dialogue with farmers who today lack the adequate education to make use of internet and mobile sources in a consistent manner. Today, organisations such as CTA have been striving to bridge the educational gap by promoting innovative farming but the proportions of the need remain significant.
Although the younger generations are more suited to adopt digital solutions to improve farming, functional illiteracy remains a widespread concern across rural Africa. In this sense, it becomes evident that infrastructural and basic market linkages need to be established for people to be able to effectively take advantage of the new worlds of information available to them in the real world. It is highly promising that information and research can traverse the rivers and mountains of Kenya to reach farmers in remote areas, but tomatoes and maize still have to travel back along physical infrastructure and without one the other is not of much use. Across the continent, One Acre Fund is one of the key actors who have been working to facilitate the creation of supply chain and helped farmers with financial and technical assistance.
Finally, rebus sic stantibus, anyone looking to work with farmers has to break out of short-term project cycles and establish the longer-term trust required for them to be willing to break conservative practices and unlock the next leap forward in sustainable agriculture.
Adrian Mallory, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, Cranfield University
and Dario Giuliani, Editor and Director, Briter