SEATTLE — E-agriculture is a promising step for sub-Saharan Africa where agriculture is a dominant industry, employing 65 percent of the labor force and accounting for 32 percent of the region’s GDP. Agriculture is considered essential for the country’s growth and poverty reduction.
Despite agriculture’s importance, not nearly enough is being done to fully extract its profitability. According to All Africa, farmers are often poorly connected to markets, lacking information on prices and on how to improve their productivity. Infrastructure for agricultural growth is lacking, and post-harvest waste is still upwards of 30 percent of produce.
E-agriculture refers to agricultural services and information delivered or enhanced through the Internet and related technologies. More specifically, it aims to improve the learning processes and communication between the actors (farmers, businesses, governments, etc) involved in agriculture through the usage of information communication technologies (ICTs).
These ICTs have a variety of uses. They provide cultivation-related information to help optimize crop-growth, which includes factors such as expected weather, the nutrient needs of plants, the best times to irrigate and fertilize, and more. They also provide business-related services, such as connecting farmers and allowing them to share information on things like market prices and food production, connecting farmers to buyers’ offers, and offering analytics to help users manage transactions and finances to increase revenues and cut costs.
FieldLook Sudan uses satellite-based information to improve water management and crop husbandry. Images are used to gather information on factors affecting crop growth, which are then sent in the form of SMS messages to farmers’ phones so that they know when and how to plant their crops. The farmers have both saved water and increased their crop yields by 60 percent as a result of the project, demonstrating the potential of ICTs to improve sustainability and productivity.
Esoko meanwhile is an example of a platform that focuses more on the business side of agriculture, aiming to connect businesses, governments and NGOs to farmers. It offers a range of apps that provide marketing tools like bulk SMS campaigns for businesses, data analytics services for governments, and linking farmers to markets with automatic market prices and offers from buyers.
A recent survey reported by the 2015 eLearning Africa Report shows that 71 percent of farmers have used to ICTs to improve their farming practices, with 90 percent affirming that ICTs are improving food security and sustainability, as well as boosting yields and income. Eighty seven percent say ICTs have helped them to move into new markets and create business. Additionally, 93 percent say that ICTs are creating more opportunities for women and young people in agriculture.
Despite the massive approval, 60 percent of farmers reported not having sufficient access to ICTs. The following barriers to ICT access have been identified: poor network coverage and energy supply, high costs of equipment and services, and lack of government support.
Still, the conditions are ripe for e-agriculture to take off in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of mobile subscribers has steadily increased in the last decade, and mobile penetration in the region is currently 38 percent. Though this is low compared to other regions in the world, none have seen such a tremendous increase in new subscribers in recent years. The PEW Research Center predicts that by 2020, the mobile penetration in sub-Saharan Africa will reach 50 percent, which will give farmers more access to e-agricultural mobile applications.