ICTs in African Agriculture

Over the past decade, both the scale of and the access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have grown considerably in Africa south of the Sahara. ICTs, including mobile phones, audio-visual communication, digital technologies, and internet services, have the potential to significantly improve the livelihoods of people involved in agriculture and associated activities. A recent FAO report notes that  increased access to and use of ICTs can support smallholder farmers and communities by facilitating access to relevant nutrition information and timely agricultural information; increasing access to financial services for rural communities; increasing access to insurance and other tools to better manage risk; and providing new business opportunities in rural areas. The potential benefits of ICTs are especially promising for  Africa south of the Sahara, which has the lowest rates of agricultural productivity and the highest rates of undernutrition globally.

A number of successful case studies in the literature illustrate the potential of ICTs in supporting smallholders in Africa south of the Sahara. For instance, one recent study in World Development finds that ICT market information technologies have a significant positive impact on input use, labor productivity, and land productivity in Kenya. Similarly, a study in Review of Development Finance finds that m-Pesa, a service that allows mobile phone subscribers to transfer money via text message, has significantly enhanced rural populations’ access to financial services in Eastern Africa. The program provides farmers with the financial capacity to make productive investments.

There exist a number of platforms that share knowledge and information on ICT technologies, including the e-agriculture community, a digital platform for the exchange of information, ideas, and resources related to the use of ICTs for sustainable agriculture and rural development.  The Plantwise program, run by CABI, aims to improve food security and rural livelihoods by providing smallholders with plant health advice through plant clinics and trained plant doctors, as well as through an online knowledge hub that provides information, diagnostic resources, best-practice pest management advice, and plant clinic data analysis. Plantwise has so far established 976 clinics across Africa and has trained 2,106 plant doctors.

Other ICT initiatives specifically focus on providing context-specific information to rural areas. For instance, Digital Green works in four countries in Africa south of the Sahara, disseminating knowledge on improved agricultural, livelihood, health, and nutrition practices using locally produced videos and professional advice. The Farmradio initiative (currently active in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Tanzania) provides smallholders with agricultural information and extension services through radio services.

ICTs also have the potential to improve the quality of government extension services and government-led agricultural support services. In 2016, the Kenyan Government launched the National Agricultural Insurance Program, which uses mobile and GPS technologies to provide agricultural insurance to smallholders. This insurance system, along with others in development across Africa, is likely to support smallholders’ resilience to production shocks.

There also exist a variety of platforms that provide information on market prices to help smallholders market and sell their produce. For instance, Mfarm in Kenya and Agro-hub in Cameroon provide smallholders with information on local market prices and allow them to directly contact potential buyers via SMS or a mobile app. These platforms also allow smallholders to sell their produce in groups, which helps them overcome the challenges associated with low sales volumes. Farmbook is another mobile application that helps agricultural extension agents work with farmers to plan their farm businesses and evaluate their productivity and profitability.  The system also trains field agents to be better business advisors and enables remote field agents to share data with project managers. Farmbook is currently available and has trained users in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar and plans to scale up their operations in 2017 to include Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh.

Multiple Meteorological Departments/Agencies in the region (including in Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania) provide localized weather forecasts to users via SMS. Kenya’s experience suggests that these services positively impacts smallholders’ agricultural production and ability to market their produce.   The Mfarms program (operating in Ghana, Kenya, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Malawi) has worked in cooperation with NASA to release released an application that provides smallholders with live satellite-based weather updates and that predicts weather patterns based on nine years of satellite data. The program provides smallholders with evidenced-based weather tools for crop production, which can help farmers overcome climate-related shocks. Mfarms also integrates the services of various other applications by providing support on crop production, market information, extensions services, and knowledge-sharing.

The increased development and adoption of ICTs in Africa south of the Sahara is also supporting positive outcomes for diets, nutrition, and health outcomes. For instance, in Uganda (which is piloting a wide array of e-health services), ICT technologies are used to map health clinics (through HiMap) in rural areas and connect these clinics to suppliers when medical supplies run low. In Benin, an app has been developed through CommCare (an open source mobile data platform) that tracks and supports interactions between health workers and clients.

Despite the widespread potential of ICTs in supporting smallholders and improving nutrition outcomes, however, there remain a number of challenges to the effective adoption and scaling up of ICTs in the agriculture sector. Effective ICTs, especially for smallholders, need to be based on large amounts of accurate and easily accessible data (from both producers and consumers); however, a large percentage of relevant agricultural data is not open or widely accessible.  A recent publication by CTA highlights that the opening of various data streams (including data on producer preferences, satellite weather, and soil conditions) will be necessary to increase understanding of the context-specific challenges facing smallholders and to design better agricultural interventions. The report also argues that releasing these large stocks of data will also encourage cooperation and collaboration among various stakeholders, benefit farmers, provide evidence-based tools for businesses and policymakers, and improve the health of consumers.

Another recent paper on how digital technologies are transforming agriculture in developing countries highlights that a digital divide still exists across and within countries, especially in Africa south of the Sahara. For instance, individuals in rural Ethiopia are only about one-fifth as likely to have access to a mobile phone as people in urban areas. This illustrates the need for significant investments  in infrastructure and appropriate policies to support rural connectivity. The paper also argues that ICTs and other technologies cannot solve agricultural and nutrition challenges by themselves; they need to be supported by traditional investments in other sectors, including infrastructure, health, and education.

Finally, context matters in the design of ICT interventions. A recent study on the social factors that influence the use of ICTs in agricultural extension (farmbook) in Southern Africa found that socio-economic factors (including gender, age, educational qualification, and internet access) all have an impact on the adoption rate and effectiveness of ICT extension services. This finding illustrates the importance of developing ICTs that are context-specific, taking into account user preferences and relevant socio-economic and climatic factors.