Making digitalization work for African agriculture: The role of the enabling environment
Increasingly, digitalization is being recognized as one of the tools in the transformation of African agriculture
Fourth of a series of blog posts on the release of the 2020 Annual Trends and Outlook Report (ATOR) during the virtual 2020 ReSAKSS Annual Conference Nov. 3–5. The theme of the 2020 ATOR is “Sustaining Africa’s Agrifood System Transformation: The Role of Public Policies.” This blog is based on Chapter 13 of the 2020 ATOR, “The Enabling Environments for the Digitalization of African Agriculture,” written by Heike Baumüller and Benjamin K. Addom. Read the other posts here.
The rapid proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) offers great promise for transforming smallholder agriculture in Africa. Going beyond the narrow view of “technologies” as a tool, the broader concept of “digitalization” is a potential game changer. Building climate resilience for smallholder farmers to boost productivity; improving access to financing for all stakeholder groups to increase profitability along the value chain; and addressing social inclusion gaps for youth, women, and other marginalized groups are some of the areas that digitalization can be effectively deployed in building more efficient food systems.
As African countries contend with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, providing an enabling environment for digitalization in agriculture will not only support food systems but also the entire development agenda of the continent.
The pandemic has created enormous havoc within the agricultural sector, including labor shortages; challenges in accessing markets and extension services; low demand for products and services leading to price fluctuations; increasing vulnerability for women and youth; and the resulting increase in food insecurity and poverty. An enabling environment for digitalization that provides solid foundation for timely access to information and services, based on a solid data infrastructure, is needed for response, recovery, and building resilience to future disasters.
A common understanding of digitalization within smallholder agriculture is critical to achieve these goals—and to the broader efforts toward transformation. But what exactly is digitalization for agriculture (D4Ag)?
The concept of “digitalization” is evolving from its narrow definition in business to one with a broader scope in the field of international development. The focus is also shifting from simply digitizing information to using digital technologies to transform business models and development interventions.
As outlined in the Digitalization of African Agriculture Report – 2018/2019, in agriculture this effort should have four interconnected pillars: Digital innovations, big data and analytics, business development services, and the enabling environment. Below, we outline key questions that stakeholders should be asking about the first three pillars, and a broader strategy for the fourth.
Digital innovations involve both the technologies themselves and the services/solutions they provide. Agricultural stakeholders should be asking key questions such as what are those technologies? Who are the developers? How are these innovations developed? How are they promoted for access? How can their availability and accessibility be promoted and ensured?
With big data and analytics, quality content and digital identities are key. Stakeholders should ask, what are the best ways to obtain quality content for the digital solutions and services? What is the role of real time data in proving such services for smallholders? How do we ensure the quality of weather, soil, agronomic, and market data? How do we get to know our clients better to deliver customized, tailored, and targeted services to cushion them against climate shocks and market fluctuations?
For business development services, here are some of the key questions: Who pays for these technologies, services, data, etc.? How is the services’ sustainability for the beneficiaries be ensured? What kinds of skills are needed for the young entrepreneurs working on these tools? What are the roles of the various stakeholders in funding and investing in the development, testing, piloting, scaling, and sustaining these services?
Putting these pillars in place together can help facilitate change for any agricultural development challenge on the continent.
While the three pillars form the working basis of D4Ag, without established “rules of the game” it will be impossible for the agriculture sector to fully realize the gains of digitalization.
Here we mean the enabling environment: The policies, institutions, infrastructure, support services, and other conditions for the sector to transform. This is critical for the other three pillars described to function. But so far, many efforts on this front have taken a piecemeal approach. A holistic model is needed. We call for a seven-pronged strategy to engage various stakeholders in creating an enabling environment for digitalization of African agriculture that is inclusive and sustainable for all:
- Strategies and policies. Both digital and non-digital strategies and policies must be considered. Regional and national bodies have laid some foundations, but regulations must evolve in response to technological change. Following the example of Rwanda, national leaders should continuously review their strategies to adapt to current issues and innovations within the sector. Agricultural policies must integrate digital strategies.
- Literacy and skills. Digital inclusion depends on digital literacy and skills, and literacy is an important consideration in a broader definition of access. African countries should integrate digital education into the curricula of schools, universities, and vocational training institutes, and improve regular on-the-job training to support rapid adoption and effective use of digital technologies and solutions. Care must be taken to ensure that these digital skills are in line with labor market demand and can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
- Knowledge exchange and networking. The digital agricultural knowledge space is characterized by scattered knowledge products and resources, and does not support quality knowledge sharing among stakeholders. The sector should explore and embrace a centralized “knowledge hub” model that liaises between all players, acting as an honest broker to facilitate knowledge sharing and networking. The hub can also support data gathering, curation, validation, and sharing through a comprehensive database that pulls and analyzes datasets from varied partners and sources.
- Infrastructure and access. Affordable and equitable access to well-functioning infrastructure, both digital and non-digital, is a prerequisite for D4Ag to scale. Countries should plan infrastructure in order to enable the use of not only today’s, but also tomorrow’s emerging digital technologies and solutions. Public-private partnerships could facilitate effective use of universal access funds to improve access for underserved areas. Particular attention should be paid to ensuring access for women and marginalized groups. Importantly, digital infrastructure investments should be accompanied by investments in other types of infrastructure, including electricity, transport, and storage facilities.
- Access to financing. African governments must learn to say no to some donor funding—specifically, funds that disrupt the business ecosystem and negatively affect young micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Transforming the sector requires a phased investment approach in which donors absorb the risks associated with the development and pilot testing of the new innovations; national governments provide the necessary investment incentives; and the private sector scales through social enterprises.
- Business ecosystem. The weakest pillar for D4Ag is business services. The future of D4Ag business depends on the strength of the current ecosystem for young start-ups. While competition is key, governments have an obligation to create a level playing field for these start-ups to access the required resources.
- Data, content and access rights. Data is obviously critical for sustainable business models for digital solutions. Striking the balance between the exploitation of this resource without infringing on the rights of users—farmers and agribusinesses—is crucial. A centralized approach to data infrastructure is one option to help protect and sustain this resource. This will not only minimize current issues with infrastructure duplication, but also lay the foundation for the private sector to build digital services and solutions and ensure that governments protect the rights of users.
For all these actions to take root, Africa needs visionary leadership on D4Ag at the continental level, transparent partnerships with multilateral institutions, and strong national commitments to minimize the current fragmentations and duplications of resources. Strong leadership can also help stakeholders capitalize on the valuable lessons and experiences with evolving new technologies in both the private and public sectors. Collectively, these efforts can make digitalization central to the transformation of African agriculture.
Benjamin K. Addom is a Senior Programme Manager, Digital Agricultural Development, Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands; Heike Baumüller is a Senior Researcher, Center for Development Research, University of Bonn.
 Senior Programme Manager, Digital Agricultural Development, Wageningen University and Research
 Senior Researcher, Center for Development Research, University of Bonn