13 november 2020
The digitalisation of agriculture promises to bring major changes to the lives of farmers in Africa. But major threats loom too, such as new and greater potential dependency of farmers on multinationals. Scholar Ellen Mangnus dives into the world of data, apps, drones and sensors for agriculture and reflects.
In a YouTube videoclip Godwin Mensah, a computer technician working at Eden Labs – a tech-startup in Ghana – introduces an innovation they developed and hope to get financed. He introduces the viewers to a mushroom farm and explains that mushrooms require carefully controlled conditions in terms of temperature, humidity and light intensity. Eden Labs’ device collects these data to a high degree of accuracy. As soon as the temperature rises above the maximum level it activates a little sprayer, which sprinkles water in the room and lowers the temperature. Farmers are informed about what’s happening through the Mushapp on their smartphone.
Eden Labs is one of the participants in an innovation competition organised by Wazihub, a programme that aims to boost digital innovation in Africa through African Tech Hubs. The range of innovations submitted to the Wazihub competition is impressive: from automated irrigation systems, to devices that provide farmers with information on the health, location and fertility of their cattle, and apps that assist farmers with locust detection and connect them to extension officers for advice on how to treat their crops. The innovations defy description and their development hasn’t even started, but some are already referring to the transformation potential of IoT as the Third Green Revolution, after plant breeding and genetics.
The development we are talking about here is the digitalisation of agriculture, also referred to as smart farming, digital agriculture, precision farming or D4Ag – digitalisation for agriculture. Regardless of the exact term used, digitalisation implies that farming tasks and other activities in the wider food system are steered by different sorts of data, for example on location, weather, behaviour, consumption, energy use, prices and economic information. It involves the use of sensors, drones and satellites to monitor animals, soil, water, plants and humans. Constant monitoring produces data that enables farmers to make more timely and accurate decisions. The promises are plentiful: D4Ag is expected to help increase resource productivity through more precise treatment of crops. Moreover, it has the potential improve traceability and transparency. In agricultural value chains, digitalisation could help make decision-making more effective and democratic, for example by guaranteeing that all actors have access to the same information. Or simply making transactions more efficient by introducing digital payments.
Expectations are high: IT in Africa is booming and promises a lot. In its 2019 report Harnessing Digital Technologies to Improve Food Systems Outcomes, the World Bank argues that poverty reduction is slowing down and global hunger is on the increase, and makes a strong case for harnessing digital technologies to improve the food system. Numerous NGOs are also starting to promote the opportunities that digitalisation offers for youth employment. And development funding for digitalisation, especially in agriculture, has increased tremendously in the past five years.
So it’s hardly surprising that digital start-ups are sprouting like mushrooms. A quick Google for “Digital Agriculture Nigeria” reveals numerous flashy websites, often with videos and stories of farmers whose hard work went ‘unrewarded’ until they gained access to a digital platform, a sensor or an app providing agricultural advice.
The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA, which closes its doors this year) recently published a major report on digitalisation in agriculture in Africa, claiming that it is a growing trend. Over 33 million smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa are already using digital solutions of some kind – that’s 13% of the farming population. The D4Ag sector has been growing at about 44% per annum over the last three years in terms of the number of farmers that registered for digital solutions, and coverage is growing quickly. In 2019, there were at least 390 different active digital solutions for agriculture across the continent, of which 60% are less than three years old. The spread is not even though: nearly two-thirds of registered farmers are based in East Africa, with Kenya leading the way.
Skills training and uptake lag behind
Progress always involves drawbacks though. And anyone talking to the various companies about the challenges they face soon learns that there’s still a lot to be done. ‘The most important barriers are limited access to electricity and internet,’ says Abdur Rahim, the founder and one of the driving forces behind the Wazihub. ‘In order to solve problems for smallholders in agriculture in Africa, technologies need to be open source, accessible to anyone,’ he explains during a Skype call. ‘As soon as there are investment costs involved, you lose a lot of marginalised farmers.’ CTA predicts that by 2030 about 80% of all households in sub-Saharan Africa will have access to at least one phone and reasonable connectivity. And the cost of data will continue to fall.
While access is an obstacle that is relatively easy to overcome, a few more difficult questions remain. In its recent report, Digitalisation and Youth Employment in Africa, the Dutch Adviesraad Internationale Vraagstukken (AIV), the advisory body on international affairs for the government, is critical of the fact that D4Ag is being hailed as an important job creator, opening up hundreds of thousands of jobs in agricultural technology. NGOs and policymakers refer to the rise in demand for digitally enabled people who can play a critical role in linking farmers to inputs, finance and knowledge. According to the AIV, this optimism should be tempered with caution. Most young people start their careers in the informal sector and never get out of it. The AIV thinks there is still a lot to do before young people are really able participate in the digital economy. Most still have limited access to the internet and technology, and – more important – many of them lack the skills needed to work in the digital economy. Moreover, D4Ag is confronted with the same structural problems that all development interventions face, namely underperforming education systems and a shortage of qualified people.
‘This is exactly why Wazihub invests so much in training and capacity building of youngsters, through tech-hubs and learning networks,’ Abdur Rahim responds. ‘It is only by involving them and their communities from the start, that they will become co-owners and acquire the necessary skills.’ Youngsters with roots in the rural areas know what solutions are needed for farming. Women face problems too: they are less ‘connected’ than men, especially considering the disproportionate work burden they bear on the farm. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 40-50% of smallholder farmers are women, only 25% are registered users of digital solutions.
The figures on usage of digital solutions are also disappointing. According to CTA’s estimates, only 42% of registered farmers and pastoralists actually use the solutions they registered for with any frequency. And the number of highly active users is likely to be even lower, in the 15-30% range. Hello Tractor – a tool that works like Uber and enables farmers to rent a tractor service – has experienced difficulty in reaching farmers. ‘We shifted from contacting farmers through SMS to hiring youngsters to personally inform farmers about the service and how to use the app,’ explains Joy Okwuwa, co-founder of Hello Tractor. Trust in digital technology is still very low.
Revolution or evolution?
But the most important question is perhaps what is the true transformative power of digitalisation? Let’s look to the future. Suppose in 50 years’ time everyone has access to the internet, and can read, and deal with D4Ag … what will have really changed in the lives of millions of farmers – young, old, men, women – in African countries?
In his research on the use of robotics in agriculture, Professor Michael Carolan observes that digitalisation can have major impacts on the cultural fabric of rural areas and farmer identities. It actually affects what it means to be a farmer more than we realise. The greater the role digital tools come to play on a farm, the more farming will rely on data management rather than experience-driven management. Some critics even suggest we should not speak of a digital revolution, but rather of digital evolution, describing the process as the continuation of the roll-out of a food system that has been built up over the past fifty years: one based on efficiency, scale and rationality, and driven by technology. They argue that these democratising, groundbreaking technologies above all reproduce the status quo: a global food system that is highly unequal and has huge negative social and environmental impacts.
These critics also point out the downsides of vertically integrated systems. Multinational corporations offer large ‘digital package deals’ to farmers, where they are not only provided with extension services, but also get paid in digital tokens that they can use to buy agro-chemicals of a certain type. These package deals tend to perpetuate existing models of agriculture based on the intensive use of chemical inputs, and keep farmers locked into a disadvantageous balance of power.
Google, Facebook and China in the lead
The critics’ worries are not unfounded. The bio-tech giants such as Bayer and Monsanto are investing heavily in digital farming. Hello Tractor is setting up joint cooperation with John Deere – a leading tractor manufacturer that foresees an interesting market in Nigeria. These types of collaboration provide market opportunities for young entrepreneurs, but also raise questions: what will happen if these companies can access the data of millions of farmers? Major tech companies such as Google and Facebook are filling the connectivity gap – originally via services as an internet platform, but now also by installing the internet infrastructure and anchoring the services in that. The 2Africa project, led by giants including Facebook, is constructing a subsea cable to improve access to the internet. In addition, China is positioning itself to roll out 5G infrastructure over the whole of Africa. One risk is that regulation of data protection and information dissemination is inadequate on the continent. And the monopoly position of some players in the internet market is a concern.
Questions have also been raised about the effect of digitalisation on farmers’ autonomy. To what extent do farmers still make decisions themselves and how much are they steered by the technology or firms behind the technology? Some critics even talk about farmers becoming ‘data labourers’, as in many instances it is not only the farmer that gets access to the data, but also the companies that own the digital solutions and tools. Furthermore, technology aimed at automating tasks and increasing efficiency may de-skill or displace farmers and farm workers and exclude or discriminate against the digitally illiterate. This may have effects on demand for rural labour and hence affect marginalised groups such as migrants. However, others argue that digital agriculture in itself does not have to be a threat to farmer independence or alternative forms of farming. Digitalisation can also strengthen agro-ecological farming and digital technologies may also be merged into existing practices to create new combinations of ‘digital’ and ‘analogue’ skills. They also point to the democratising potential of providing marginalised groups with extension advice.
In short, the cookie crumbles both ways. There is evidence that D4Ag can strengthen the power of those who are already strong, but that it can also lead to opportunities for people who are at present excluded. It remains to be seen whether digital farming will support the continuation of a dominant neoliberal, western model of industrial farming in which giant corporations fight over shares in control of land, labour and food in the name of sustainability, or whether it is a genuine revolution that fosters new and more equal relationships between food, consumers and their environment. Nevertheless, researchers, practitioners and start-up entrepreneurs all share the conviction that public control and watchdogs are necessary to guarantee inclusive digitalisation. As long as the start-ups and the farmers engaging in digital agriculture retain possession of their own data, digitalisation could make farming a little bit easier for many people.
Digitalisation for Agri-business is one of the theme’s during the Global Virtual Seminar about The Afrian Food & Employment Revolution by 2030. Register for free at https://bit.ly/3ldPHXt
In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year
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