On the Byte
Agriculture is an ancient profession. It is also the frontier of modernization and innovation. Over the centuries, agriculture has gone through several stages of reform, including mechanization, the Green Revolution – led by Dr. Norman Borlaug -- and precision farming. Each of these has significantly transformed the way that our food is produced and consumed, as well as the livelihoods of farmers across the globe.
Sustaining past progress and responding to emerging pressures requires innovative means of resolving faster and at scale the host of challenges to gains in productivity, improved nutrition and competitiveness in food value chains. In response, global food systems already find themselves in the midst of a new revolution, one which links all the previous revolutions, amplifying them with a new edge of hyper-connectivity and efficiency with the potential to further improve yields, reduce food waste, and increase incomes. This is the era of digital agriculture. And it is wholly disrupting agriculture in Africa.
On mechanization for example, ICTs are facilitating access to machinery, such as tractors for smallholder farmers. There are several platforms, including Hello Tractor and TROTRO Tractor, offering tractor hiring services as well as other services ranging from plowing, harrowing, planting, spraying, harvesting, and baling to hedge trimming. This “uberization” of tools and machinery lowers the cost of access, optimizes their use, and provides smallholder farmers an avenue to significantly increase their output and minimize food waste.
Plant breeding is also adopting big data applications to organize and access huge amounts of genomic information and user interface tools for efficient breeding. For instance, the rate of genetic improvement in cassava breeding has been halved through the application of statistical modelling (involving big data) by NextGen Cassava.
But it is on input adoption that digital technology has the potential to make the greatest impact. Not only do farmers have better access to information and finance for inputs, they are also able to apply them prudently, with more precision and reduced environmental impacts. Agricultural extension services have greatly benefitted from the possibility to disseminate information to more remote areas, in a more timely manner and at more affordable prices, ensuring information arrives at the correct time and is of relevance to the farmer. The RiceAdvice service in Mali, Senegal and Niger sent field-specific recommendations to farmers for best mineral fertilizer application, leading to average yield gains of 0.6-1.8 tons/ha and an average increase in income of US$100-US$200/ha between 2015-2017.
The advent of mobile money is disrupting the way that farmers save, crowdfund, and pay for inputs. iProcure in Kenya has turned the relationship between input suppliers and farmers on its head, putting the farmer in charge and having the suppliers respond to their needs.
The development of digital hardware for agriculture in the form of sensors, drones, smart irrigation powered by the Internet of Things, and even robotics, is also disrupting the way that inputs are applied. Sensors placed around the farm or on farm equipment enable farmers to closely monitor their farms remotely and tailor input application precisely. For example, drones in South Africa are being used to spray sugarcane more accurately, ensuring that crops grown on challenging terrain also benefit from protection.
Digital technologies are supercharging previous developments in agriculture. They are also enabling the provision of integrated solutions and strategies, combining multi-sector technologies and knowledges, including biotechnology, business, engineering, chemistry, etc.
Yet, while (open) data platforms and the use of digital technologies and services are highly encouraged, laws and frameworks need to be in place. Smart regulation should facilitate and spur entrepreneurial initiatives and competition, as well as access to technologies and services and their use across agriculture value chains. Regulation should also promote innovation and participation by and collaboration between stakeholders, while ensuring a balance between the free flow of data and information and privacy concerns.
If carefully managed, the convergence of digitalization and sustainability in agriculture offers tremendous opportunities for all actors in Africa’s food system to leapfrog some of the negative impacts from previous revolutions.
The latest report by The Malabo Montpellier Panel, Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s Food System with Digital Technologies, provides a plethora of examples which are having a considerable (positive) impact on the whole food system in Africa: including how food is being produced, processed, marketed, traded and consumed across the continent.