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article imageAfrica's agriculture needs a big dose of digital transformation

By Karen Graham     Oct 3, 2017 in Technology
Scientists are now calling for a technological transformation in how Africans undertake agricultural production. With almost three quarters of the workforce on the continent focussed on agriculture, such a change could lead to rapid innovation.
Looking at Africa as a whole, it is the agricultural sector that will see a revolution with farmers creating the high productivity jobs and sustainable economic growth that wasn't realized with mining mineral deposits and increased urbanization, according to the Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR) launched this year.
“The aggregate annual food import bill is about US$35 billion and is estimated to rise to US$110 billion by 2025," reads the report. And this amount being spent on imported foodstuffs is despite over 70 percent of the workforce on the continent engaged in agriculture. Even more telling, much of what is imported could be grown on African soil.
Irrigated farming in Kilimanjaro  Tanzania: Expanding waterworks and other rural infrastructure is v...
Irrigated farming in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: Expanding waterworks and other rural infrastructure is vital for increasing production and sustainable land management.
United Nations/ Peter Arnold, Inc. / Ron Giling
A digital transformation in agricultural production is needed
This is exactly what the major theme of the three-day High-level Conference on the "Application of Science, Technology and Innovation in Harnessing African Agricultural Transformation" was all about at the Speke Resort at Munyonyo in Uganda last week.
While digital transformation is the change associated with the application of digital technology in all aspects of human society, agricultural transformation means that digital usage enables new types of innovation, technology, science, and creativity. And this was the consensus of the 100 scientists, civil society representatives, and government officials at the conference.
Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye, Uganda’s Minister for Science, Technology, and Innovation told the conference, “The growing food insecurity due to the under-performing agricultural sector and poor policies in Africa are further complicated by the impacts of climate change and the emergence of new crop diseases."
Parched soil by the White Nile in Khartoum  Sudan.
Parched soil by the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan.
United Nations/World Bank/ Arne Hoel
Noting that the challenges facing Africa's agriculture sector "require the application of science and technology to mitigate the impacts," He added this was the only way to see a transformation in agriculture.
However, as notes, almost all of Africa's farms are small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and smallholder farmers. Actually, the continent has 51 million farms, of which 80 percent (or 41 million) are smaller than 2 hectares (4.9 acres) in size.
Ugandan Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda noted that Africa was lagging behind the rest of the world in using science and technology because of inadequacies in communicating the role of technology and innovation in agricultural transformation.
AAFT s primary mission is to access  develop  adapt and deliver appropriate agricultural technologie...
AAFT's primary mission is to access, develop, adapt and deliver appropriate agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) through innovative partnerships and effective stewardship along the entire value chain.
African Agricultural Technology Foundation
“We have made many advances in research discoveries, but they end up in publications, sometimes in cupboards, sometimes in lecture rooms. We need to harness this valuable information that will empower our people, our farmers, our governments,” Dr. Ruganda added.
Transforming the African economy, starting with Agriculture
Staple food crops, like maize, rice, sorghum, millet, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, and a few traditional cash crops like coffee, cotton, cocoa, oil palm, sugar, tea, and tobacco are the main source of income for about 64 percent of Africa's rural population. These crops are low-yield due to little or no scientific or technological input and depend on rainwater for irrigation, according to the African Development Bank in a 2015 report.
Needless to say, despite an abundance of natural resources and arable land, one in four people are undernourished or starving because food production, supply, and consumption systems are not functioning as they should. Basically, the three-day High-level Conference wants a "green revolution" like what has been seen in Asia.
The UN has warned that the risk of mass deaths from starvation was growing among people in conflict ...
The UN has warned that the risk of mass deaths from starvation was growing among people in conflict and drought-hit areas of the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Nigeria
Africa needs the mechanisms for productivity improvements, with a particular focus on the role of information communication technologies (ICT) in agriculture and land reforms. It also must consider the opportunities and challenges of biotechnology for seeing growth in productivity using genetically modified crops.
There are some African governments fostering agriculture. Ethiopia and Nigeria both have formed an Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) to coordinate activities across government and local ministries, as well as across local governments. Rwanda has also focused on national agricultural strategy and has increased government expenditures for agriculture to 10.2 percent.
However, most African governments are still under-investing in irrigation, farm to market roads, ICT and Research and Development (R&D), and this is desperately needed.
There are some success stories
Nairobi, Kenya-based Selina Wamucii is a digital marketing portal that is helping over 3,000 small farmers in Kenya access global markets for their fresh produce. The company uses a mobile phone-based traceability system to track the specific lot and farm that each carton of produce comes from.
Selina Wamucii is a real success story.
Selina Wamucii is a real success story.
Selina Wamucii
Farmers participating with Selina Wamucii grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs. They also produce processed foods like extra virgin avocado oil, canned pineapple ( chunks and rings in syrup or juice), pineapple crush, mango pulp and mango concentrates, all from vetted producers within the country.
The success of the venture is evident. The company has helped to solve many of the problems facing small farms - like " poor earnings for farmers, a lack of a steady market, difficulties meeting market-driven standards and inefficient logistics along the agriculture supply chain," says the website.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates and promotes public/private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) through innovative partnerships and effective stewardship along the entire value chain.
In working to secure food security and sustainability and promote the adoption of the agricultural technologies needed by small farms, AATF works with a number of projects, like providing agricultural extension services to farmers that introduce them to new technologies being used in agriculture.
Another project, the Cassava Mechanisation and Agroprocessing Project (CAMAP), is currently being implemented in Nigeria, Zambia, and Uganda, and is aimed at reducing drudgery, and increasing productivity and incomes for farmers growing cassava. By demonstrating and teaching farmers how to use mechanized aids, they have reduced the drudgery and increased crop outputs.
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