Africa is a net importer of food with current figures at 30 billion Euros per annum and the figure could triple by 2025 if drastic measures are not taken according to a report by CTA & Dalberg Advisors. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that Africa’s prosperity and economic growth lies in agriculture, most governments are struggling to honor their Malabo Declaration commitment of allocating at least 10% of their total budgets to the sector. But the situation could change with the introduction and up scaling of data and digital technologies in the agrifood value chains. The evolution of Agricultural Internet of Things (AIoT), block chain technology, machine learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), use of drones among others could transform the sector by increasing productivity and creating jobs.
According to UN data, 65% of African population is comprised of the youth, yet the average age of a farmer in the continent is 60 years. This is an indicator of how African youth perceive agriculture. Besides arable land, this is the most important resource that the region can tap to feed itself. Digitalization of agriculture could attract this tech savvy generation to the sector, creating job opportunities along the entire value chain from production, advisory and financial services, processing, marketing and distribution. With most African countries grappling with youth unemployment rates of up to 70%, this would be a major relief by creating decent jobs.
Globally, there’s a shift from conventional production to sustainable production. This means that as the world grapples on how to feed over 9 billion people by 2030, it must do so in a way that will not jeopardize future generations to do the same. Digitalization promotes precision agriculture as IBM refers it whereby through the use of drones and soil sensors, farmers can capture real time data on insights such as soil, moisture levels and crops’ general health for them to make timely decisions. This improves on resource allocation and reduces costs through the evolution of digitally-enabled climate smart solutions.
However, despite the promise of agricultural transformation through technology, this is not a substitute for physical infrastructure (roads, markets and electricity) and human infrastructure in areas such as extension services. These are still needed to transform agriculture and therefore parallel investment is necessary to ensure balanced agricultural transformation.
There’s also need to localize technological innovations in agriculture and tailor them to the targeted groups and countries. For instance, over 80% of small holders in Kenya have access to a mobile phone and accept mobile payments. This might not be the case in other African countries. It’s also important to note that technology does not replace talent and therefore continuous investment in quality education of the players along the value chain is still necessary.
Local governments must also create an enabling environment for these innovations to take root through appropriate policies. This will ensure innovations work for smallholders who constitute 70% of rural farmers and produce 80% of the food. Without the right policies, it will be difficult to reap the benefits of agricultural digitalization.
In conclusion, digitalization could help smallholders to bypass a number of challenges such as financial access, timely decision making and resource conservation while attracting youth to agriculture but the technologies should complement human and physical infrastructure to ensure balanced growth and sustainability.