Agriculture is a key sector of the African economy, contributing 10% to GDP, 8% of employment, and 25% of exports according to the World Bank. In some countries, agriculture accounts for more than half of all jobs. This sector is also critical to improving food security outcomes in Africa. Food insecurity affects more than two thirds of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and nearly a third globally. It constrains sustainable economic growth and poses serious public health consequences for its victims.
By 2021, FAO reported that around 346.4 million Africans suffered from severe food insecurity and an additional 452 million endured moderate food insecurity. That means that close to 800 million people (just over 60% of Africa’s population) do not know where their next meal is coming from. Yet, by 2050, the population of Africa is expected to double in size – by which point, the continent will be unable to grow enough food for its own people, let alone export to drive economic growth.
3 Main stumbling blocks that explain the food insecurity crisis in Africa:
- Unpredictable weather conditions increase crop variability, impact livestock yields, and increase the potential for pest and disease outbreaks. Climate change threatens agricultural development as it increases. All of this has a significant impact on smallholder farmers.
- Poor road conditions, unreliable power supplies, and widespread shortages of communications and digital infrastructure hamper Africa's attempts to alleviate widespread poverty and inequality. Lack of broadband connectivity and inadequate access to digital solutions also prevents the farmer from accessing information needed to farm more efficiently.
- Complex gender and socio-cultural dynamics, women and young people often lack the economic means to access information and tools to make agriculture more effective. They also typically lack the education and digital skills to use new technologies for more strategic and efficient farming.
Digital Solutions in Addressing Farmers' Needs and Food Insecurity
Digital tools give farmers access to information and advisory services, financial systems and key markets. Digital technology can also help smallholder farmers overcome many of the challenges that prevent them from implementing more sustainable farming practices. Below are highlighted examples of the different ways African farming communities are using Agritech to improve yields, showing which technologies are having the greatest impact in farming.
- Local communities are using technology to improve farming by digitizing irrigation systems and adding sensors to the soil, farmers can water according to the needs of the plant. These soil sensors measure the moisture needs of the soil and the farmers can control the irrigation system remotely via their mobile phone.
- Training on use of mobile and web applications to help farmers access knowledge. There are startups and groups making agriculture more accessible and profitable for women by teaching them how to use apps to connect to potential customers and unlock enormous economic growth.
- Farmers’ groups help member farmers to list their produce on digital marketplaces and connect them directly with buyers without an intermediary. The platforms also provide timely weather forecasts so farmers can plan better, and it shares important market information, which ensures that farmers secure the best price for their products.
- Other agritech startups like Synnefa leverage mobile and digital technologies for smallholder farmers by creating softwares like FarmCloud and FarmShield to Increase efficiency and take the guesswork out of farm management.
- Other farmers are using drones to perform aerial surveys of farms, this gives the farmers a better understanding of the topography of the land, helping them keep track of the best time to spray fields for pests or to fertilize their crops.
Consequently, there is a growing need to provide digital solutions that complement agricultural innovations to boost productivity and maintain food system resilience and food security across Africa.
Challenges to these Agritech Solutions to Africa
As much as Agri-tech presents an opportunity to improve food production, it also offers a challenge for Africa. On one hand, technology can help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of agriculture in meeting the need for food. Therefore, the agricultural industry is in dire need of startups and the practical innovations they can deliver. On the other hand, the agricultural industry faces major challenges including lack of funding, produce loss in transit due to poor infrastructure, inefficient supply chains, and often unreliable markets. All these factors contribute to low yields and low farmer income.
The biggest challenge will be to reduce 23% undernutrition on average and 20% child stunting that plagues women/children in sub-Saharan Africa according to FAO. Nonetheless, if startups are able to address some of these issues by digitizing agriculture then African nations stand to benefit immensely.
The advancement of digital technology on the continent opens up unprecedented opportunities for the continent to leapfrog the West, realizing its true agricultural potential, and allowing it to rise rapidly from a status of perceived underdevelopment, poverty and hunger. Africa can achieve this by zeroing in on targeted innovations that deliver tangible returns in terms of food security, nutrition, income generation and other humanitarian outcomes that cultivate wellbeing.
Point to Note
The innovation economy is one of the most important fields when it comes to building a foundation for economic growth and development. Through this effort, countries can drive new sources of competition for industries and businesses allowing for further transformations in the products and services delivered. It is through innovations like these that enable food systems to be more efficient as well as sustainable, that builds a stronger position for Africa as potential contributors to global trade in the future.