Africa is endowed with fertile soils and favourable climate, two factors ideal for agriculture–but she cannot feed her 1 billion citizens. She spends around $45 billion annually on food importation according to the President of Africa Development Bank, Akinwunmi Adesina which is utterly unacceptable for a continent with lots of agriculture potentials. “We have a lot of water and we have cheap labour across African economies and what we should be doing is producing our own food so that we become a global powerhouse in food production,” said Adesina.
However, despite the obvious shortages, the United Nations report shows that agricultural production in Africa has increased steadily over the last 30 years. Its value has almost tripled (+160%), showing an increase that clearly exceeds the growth rate for global agricultural production over the same period (+100%), almost identical to that of South America (+174%), and below but comparable to growth in Asia (+212%).
It is therefore no surprising that agriculture plays a vital role in the socio-economic development of Africa. Agriculture accounts for about 30% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa; it employs half or more of the working population and at least 40% of total annual Africa’s export value (mostly as raw materials for finished products that are imported back to Africa). But much of the development in the sector is fuelled by predominantly small-scale farmers.
Except South Africa with a number of mechanised farming, most African farmers are smallholder farmers. They are illiterates with no formal training, no state support, and no access to markets making it extremely difficult for them to achieve economies of scale. Recent interventions are largely on mechanised farming but less attention is going towards the vulnerable- the smallholder farmers.
As Professor Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food argues; “small-scale farming can be as productive as large-scale farming”. Should smallholder farmers be properly managed, they can be catalyst to alleviating rural poverty and development. But to achieve this, a number of conditions must be satisfied.
Smallholder farmers must have access to markets including better transport system to avoid their outright dependence on the goodwill of middlemen, whom they negotiate with from a weak position. They must have access to farm inputs, state support in the form of agricultural extension services and training.
Unfortunately, in most parts of Africa, despite smallholder farmers’ huge contributions to the economy, they live below the poverty line. They are victims of the manipulative skills of the middlemen. Amana, a farmer from Kenya’s western region said; “one day, I hope that government will be able to help me to get a fair price on my farm produce”. “At the moment, what I earn is barely enough to cover the cost of clearing and harvesting my maize plantation”. Farmers suffer from lack of infrastructure and modern access to improved seedlings. “Most of our farm produce is wasted due to poor storage facilities and transport system and ofcourse, we are cheated by the buyers; said Amana”.
Nevertheless, he looks forward towards a better future. “I hope to be a rich farmer one day but except government me to get fair share on my produce, I stand no chance.” He wants his children to go to school and live a life he couldn’t afford. Amana story is not an isolation story; it is a common story among smallholder farmers across Africa.
Although many farmers across Africa looks to the government for help, help seems to be coming from an unlikely place. A new set of digital entrepreneurs are coming up with ideas that focus on helping smallholder farmers to achieve the best results.
Buoyed by the success of MPesa in the financial sector, the agriculture sector is undergoing its own mobile revolution. Kenya entrepreneurs are developing solutions that are geared towards boosting farm management; reducing waste, as well as helping smallholder farmers to get the right compensation for their efforts. Here are few of the African led technologies driven start-ups helping farmers like Amana, in providing native solutions to array of challenges facing them in Kenya.
iCow (Veterinary Doctors)
iCow is a Kenya based mobile phone cow calendar that allows dairy farmers to track the gestation periods and progress of their cows with SMS and voice services. In a country where small scale farmers have little or no access to veterinary doctors, iCow represents a virtual veterinary midwife, helping farmers track the estrus stages of their cows.
The technology also helps farmers in disseminating valuable tips on cow breeding, animal nutrition, milk production efficiency and gestation. It is an innovation that is really valuable to small farm holders in East Africa which can be replicated across the continent.
FarmDrive (Record Keepers)
Funding is one of the biggest challenges small-scale farmers are facing across Africa. Since majority of small-scale farmers are illiterate, they do not have a financial profile that can help them to access funding to scale up. Launched in 2014 by two tech savvy ladies, FarmDrive believes that there is a huge funding gap in the agric sector which needs to be bridged. It is an innovative way to use data that is generated in smallholder farmers’ value chains for financial inclusion.
FarmDrive provides a simple record-keeping platform that helps farmers build a credit profile. It harnesses the power of data analytics and mobile technology; aggregate and analyse pertinent information about smallholder farmers from dynamic traditional and alternate data points – including produce off-takers, agro-dealers and the farmers.
Inaddition, FarmDrive stimulates financial institutions to lend more to smallholder farmers, by de-risking the process through showing clear and transparent records and allowing the institutions to create products that address the challenges of smallholder farmers. The firm works with credit agencies and commercial banks to ensure the information coming from the farmer is relevant to access affordable credit they deserve.
MFarm (Farm Solution Provider)
Many farmers produce crops without having a clear sense of how to market it. Infact, the lack of pricing transparency in the Agric sector makes many smallholder farmers within the poverty belt. Launched in 2010,MFarm is geared towards solving this problem by providing up-to-date market prices via an app or SMS, direct to farmers. MFarm relies on a simple technology that allows a real-time group buying and selling market for farmers. It connects farmers with buyers directly, cutting out the middlemen that are the bane of poor price for Africa farmers.
For farmers who use Mfarm services, they do not need to worry as all transactions are handled by MFarm’s integrated mobile money transfer system leveraging on the same scale the popular MPesa payment technology works.
Mifugo.trade (Livestock Marketplace)
Moved by the fragmentation and insufficiencies in the livestock trade which provides livelihoods for over six million pastoralists in Kenya, Taylor Tully started Mifugo.Trade a mobile-based website and app that directly connects livestock producers and buyers thereby reducing marketing costs and increasing profits for producers. The platform helps to improve the overall marketing process and experience for both producers and buyers through increase efficiencies and transparency, and reduction of risk and uncertainty.
The Mifugo trained assessing agents armed with smartphones help livestock farms in the evaluation of livestock and upload relevant information of livestock sale to the platform. Within the short time of its operation, it has helped a number of farmers to cut out middlemen and bring the livestock marketing into the 21st century.
In Kenya, thousands of Amana are now better-off using a simple but effective technology (mobile phones) to better their lives. Although a lot of gap in the agriculture sector across Africa can be bridged with technology, unfortunately, such solutions are dragging. Emilio Hernandez, agricultural finance officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was blunt in his Assessment. While he admits technology is a potent weapon in helping smallholder farmers in Africa, he expresses his fear that beyond Kenya, there is less innovation than there should be.
These interventions should not be limited to Kenya or the East African States; it can be adapted to other parts of Africa. Although mechanised farming remains a long-term solution to African food shortages, neglecting the largest percentage of the African workforce is a disaster waiting to happen. The greatest advantage of these innovations lies not in the efficient management of smallholder farmland but in its capacity to reduce poverty among the rural populace where the bulk of subsistence farmers live.