YORKSHIRE, United Kingdom — In light of the world’s challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to point out that the pandemic brought to light the vulnerability of agricultural and food systems in poorer countries. According to various surveys, up to 80% of smallholders reported that their economic situation is worse now than before the pandemic. The World Bank Group developed a COVID-19 Household Monitoring Dashboard to monitor the impact of the pandemic and individuals in 72 countries worldwide. According to the Dashboard, in Ghana, 76% of households whose main source of income comes from agriculture, reported the decline in the last 12 months. Despite Africa’s challenges during the pandemic, digital agriculture could help African farmers be successful.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security in Africa
In many countries across Africa, hunger is increasing at a disturbing rate due to various factors. Years of armed conflicts, drought, extreme weather conditions and economic woes are playing a significant role. Apart from that, various government restrictions and measures aimed at curbing the pandemic have wreaked havoc on the continent’s food supply and worsened the already weak image of food security in Africa. Many factors are threatening food security. Lockdowns and restrictions caused major disruptions in food supply chains. Additionally, the border closures and restrictions of export and import of essential foods such as rice and wheat made many African countries vulnerable since they depend on these items.
Since it contributes to about 23% of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), agriculture is undeniably one of the most important economic sectors. Research has shown that in sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60% of the working population works in agriculture. In rural parts of the continent, it is also the primary source of income and food. Lockdowns and other restrictions have made it difficult for farmers to sell their products as well.
The situation is particularly dire in East Africa. According to the latest statistics, 7 million people across East Africa are at risk of starvation and another 33.8 million are at risk of food insecurity. More than 12.8 children in countries such as Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are severely malnourished due to food insecurity.
About Digital Agriculture
Digital agriculture is the use of digital technology in agriculture to collect, analyze, store and share electronic data related to agriculture. The UN has described the use of digital technologies in agriculture as something that will undeniably revolutionize the process. In the climate the continent is in at present, farmers need to keep innovating to overcome various challenges and meet the demand. Digital technologies enable them to meet the requirements and seize growth opportunities. One may wonder how the digital agriculture industry gets consumers while in reality, consumers may have an attraction to this concept because it allows them to have more knowledge about the products they buy. Consumers usually ask for quality and sustainably produced food and digital agriculture allows them to know where it is coming from.
How Can Digital Agriculture Help Africa Beat the Pandemic?
The U.S.-based nonprofit Heifer International conducted a survey that showed that 40% of agricultural organizations had to at least temporarily close due to pandemics. However, the survey also found that there is hope in the combination of technology and agriculture, i.e. digital agriculture. Some of the challenges farmers in African countries face are more pressing than others. When asked about their needs after the first wave of COVID-19, most farmers expressed the need for agronomic advice, inputs, money and help in transportation and logistics challenges and in recognizing adequate markets for the crops. That is where digital agriculture proves to be useful, as it is enabling the food system to become more resilient to unpredicted systemic shocks such as this pandemic. For example, agricultural eCommerce platforms provide more direct linkages to markets, which prove valuable for overcoming the challenges farmers face.
Heifer International conducted digital agriculture research and found that many entrepreneurs create agri-tech services and tools for digital improvement agriculture across Africa. It is using all available technologies such as AI, geographic information software and virtual reality to contribute to digital disruptions in agriculture.
How African Governments Have Been Aiding Digital Agriculture
Governments have already taken various steps in ensuring that smallholders involve themselves in digital agriculture. For example, about 13% of sub-Saharan farmers have already registered for services such as weather updates. Ethiopia created a farmer advisory service hotline, “80-28,” which has 4 million users. It is a free service that delivers information in local languages, which is a significant advantage. Rwanda is one of the countries on the continent where the government and various organizations actively work on implementing digital agriculture technologies.
Digital Agriculture in Rwanda
In Rwanda, the main crop is coffee, with about half of a million coffee producers. The amount of coffee it produces limits its revenues. Hence, digital agriculture helps them make coffee a more profitable crop. That is why agribusiness NGOs such as TechnoServe, organize technology training in Rwanda and other countries in East Africa. The research showed that training enables farmers to become more knowledgeable about the best coffee growing practices. Along with other types of support, including financial, it helps farmers to adopt new technologies.
Digital Agriculture in Kenya
Kenya is also one of the countries where the agriculture sector plays a vital role in the economy.
The statistics show that it provides a livelihood for 38% of the population and accounts for
31.5 % of the country’s GDP.
According to the Kenyan government, the country is at the forefront of digital innovations in
agriculture and aims to adopt the 10-year Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth
Strategy. The goal of the strategy is to develop a modern agricultural sector that will support
100% food security. Most of the tools farmers in Kenya use at present rely on the use of mobile
phones and mobile money. They use last-mile digital tools that enable digital transactions and
facilitate communication between smallholder farmers and agricultural businesses. They also
use market linkage tools and direct to farmers’ hubs. The purpose of the first tool is to connect
producers and buyers through the mobile app. Direct to farmer hubs are the type of shops
where service providers provide their services directly to registered farmers. It is also possible
for farmers to take orders directly from buyers and not through third-party mediators.
Challenges Implementing Digital Agriculture in African Countries
The research shows that young people are willing to go into agriculture. However, they feel that they lack access to funds and training which would enable them to do so. Hence, it is essential for governments to provide education and enable people to create a business that will ensure sustainable income.
Number of People Using Digital Technologies in Agriculture
Africa is a continent with a high percentage of young people. Practically, around 60% of people are younger than 25 years old and, as such, can enter the agricultural business. However, due to a lack of finance and knowledge, only 23% use agricultural technology for now.
Agricultural Technology Can Help Africa During COVID-19
Agricultural technologies can enable farmers to understand better where and how to grow to create a sufficient food supply for the continent. Additionally, through funds and education, plenty of young people can have a chance to find employment and build successful careers.
Technology affects all spheres of people’s lives, regardless of location. Each industry is changing, and that includes agriculture too. The market is more complex, and everyone, including farmers, deals with totally different requirements, especially as the world deals with the consequences of COVID-19. Agriculture has a significant role in the economy of the countries located on the African continent. Thus, both governments and farmers need to be aware that using digital agriculture will bring enormous benefits for them and the continent’s population, in general.
– Thomas Glare