Agri-tech: Africa’s Answer to Agricultural Productivity?

Africa’s economy is inherently dependent on agriculture. More than 32% of the continent’s GDP comes from the sector and it accounts for two-thirds of livelihoods. Yet despite Africa’s vast, resource-rich and arable land, tropical climates and a booming young population it remains a net importer of staple food products (it spent $35bn on food imports in 2011). This devastating reality is further highlighted when we consider the fact that Africa actually has the potential to feed the world as well as itself.

“Africa could replace these imports with their own produce, which would, in turn, reduce poverty, enhance food and nutrition security, and provide sustainable growth to the respective societies.” Otavio Veras howwemadeitinafrica.com 

The issue lies in Africa’s agricultural productivity – or lack thereof. Agricultural productivity on the continent still remains far from developed world standards. Over 90% of agriculture in Africa still depends on rainfall, with no artificial irrigation aid*. As well as this Africa’s smallholders still face basic infrastructural challenges and barriers to market access which stifles potential earnings, causes poverty and upholds gender inequality (women make up 70% of Africa’s farming community).

To counter foreign dependency, African governments have attempted to rejuvenate their economy’s agricultural sectors in recent years through a combination of policy and investment including import restrictions, institutional reforms, and direct investment. However many commentators have questioned the effectiveness of such policies. For example, the use of import restrictions on foods such as rice in Nigeria under President Buhari only worked to inflate the cost of a staple food product in many Nigerian households. Instead, focusing more attention on technology change and market improvement has been suggested to be the answer to Africa’s productivity challenges.

Solutions in Agri- Tech 

Africa’s adoption of technology has been rapid and unprecedented. Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, increasing at an average of 44% annually since 2000, according to GSMA. Mobile penetration in Kenya is well over 70% and in 5 years the continent has accumulated 700 million smartphones. Some have even suggested that Africa now has more phones than toilets! This type of ‘technological leapfrogging’ has left room for opportunities in technological transformation in many areas. For instance, Africans have rapidly adopted financial technology (fin-tech) as a way of life; this has led to fin-tech solutions leapfrogging the Western world’s traditional way of financial services as we know it.

The same is beginning to be seen in the agricultural industry with the growth of ‘agri-tech’ solutions to help combat productivity challenges. Startups in agri-tech have been popping up across the continent, providing solutions for smallholders from seed to market and everything in between. Ghanaian startup Landmapp provides a solution to every smallholder’s initial challenge: land ownership. Landmapp uses a mobile mapping and data collection technology to offer farmers affordable land rights documentation that is fully compliant with Ghanaian regulations as well as customary traditions. Poor land governance systems are one of the biggest challenges to agricultural productivity. According to Thisisafricaonline.com, only 10% of Africa’s rural land is registered, leaving the remaining 90% susceptible to contention and corruption which drives up costs and stifles productivity. Thus such technology could reduce the cost of land administration significantly.

On to the issue of trade, the combination of fin-tech with agri-tech has naturally been a common feature of agri-tech solutions since financial access remains a significant barrier to productivity, especially in rural areas. One example is 2-Kuze (duh -KOO-zay), a new digital marketplace for East African farmers to sell their crops and receive payment via their mobile telephones. Smallholder farmers trying to get the best price for their crops are often dependent on middlemen –  agents, buyers and sellers who leave them with inconsistent and unpredictable returns. The technology offered by 2-Kuze gives real-time mobile solutions and transparency in the market. That way smallholders are able to get the best deals for their crops and are paid faster. There is also an indirect benefit for smallholders when using this type of platform.  A financial log or history is created, which could prove helpful when they seek credit or loans to expand their farms.

Companies such as Farm Shop aim to improve access to information about farming techniques and input quality.  Farm Shop agents collect soil samples from farmers, and within a few days send results directly to the farmers via SMS, informing them about what will help improve yields. According to howwemadeitinafrica.com, the average farmer in Ghana uses only 7.4kg of fertiliser per hectare, while in South Asia fertiliser use averages more than 100kg per hectare. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of nutrients are depleted annually in Africa. Agri education/ information sharing like that provided by Farm Shop’s technology is therefore key and has the potential to make a significant impact on productivity.

Financial technology solutions > access to finance > financial freedom > access to quality inputs > agricultural productivity

Technology platforms providing information > access to information/ education > improved skills > agricultural productivity

 

 

The Agri-tech startups popping up across farming communities offering solutions to Africa’s productivity woes have been encouraging and have begun to yield significant results. However, given the complexity of Africa’s challenges, it is clear that individual startups cannot be the answer to all smallholder woes. At the moment these startups and their solutions are confined to their individual regions/ farming communities lucky enough to be in the vicinity of such ventures. And in fact, many smallholders remain unwilling to risk testing out new ventures. Moreover, the reality is that despite their promise, these innovative startups will face challenges with scalability that will need to be addressed. Therefore to achieve sustainable economic transformation, innovation will need to be complemented with effective policy, strategy and investment backing. It has been encouraging to see many African governments prioritising the agricultural sector. Combining the innovation we are seeing in agri-tech with investment backing and policy (e.g. in agri education, research, infrastructural investment, entrepreneurship etc.) will build the ecosystem of digitised solutions Africa is in need of. That way Africa may begin to translate its wealth in natural resources into prosperity.

Some examples of Agri-tech startups in Africa:

Greenfingers Mobile (South Africa) – a mobile-first software-as-a-service (SaaS) technology platform that manages and finances large groups of smallholder farmers.

Zazu (Zambia) – allows farmers with extra produce to connect with new markets, while buyers are provided with a more sophisticated and easy way to order more produce for less.

Ghalani (Ghana) – provides a mobile and web-­based ERP solution to the contract farming sector that integrates all agricultural supply chain processes seamlessly.

Kilimo Salama (Kenya) – an insurance designed for Kenyan farmers so they may insure their farm inputs against drought and excess rain. Weather stations are equipped with small sim-cards that wirelessly transmit data every 5 minutes to a cloud-based server to create a weather-based index insurance system.

Mfarm (Kenya) – through SMS allows rural farmers in remote areas of Kenya to check the latest market prices, post information on their harvest for buyers to see and purchase, and band together with other farmers in their area to make bulk purchases.

*Only 5% of the cultivated land in Africa makes use of irrigation, with most of the farmers depending on rainfall. In comparison in Asia, 38% of the arable land is under irrigation

What are your thoughts on Africa’s Agri-tech industry? Could it be the solution to productivity shortfalls? Comment below.

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African Women in Tech: Improving Economic Empowerment

Across Africa, women are often the pillars of their families and local communities. According to Diginomica.com women in Africa put up to 90% of the money they earn back into their communities and families. Yet as is the case globally, African women still face barriers and an even further limited access to resources than their male counterparts.

Despite this, the continent boasts the highest number of female entrepreneurs relative to other continents and this is continuing to grow rapidly. For example, Nigeria outranks the US and the UK in terms of percentage of entrepreneurs amongst women with a rate of 41% against 10% and 5.7% respectively. And in the likes of Ghana and Zambia, the percentage of female entrepreneurs surpasses 50% of their total pool of entrepreneurs. Of course, the state of Africa’s economies means there are far more limited options for employment for both men and women alike (no truer are the words ‘necessity breeds innovation’ than on the African continent!). However, considering that traditional social norms remain pertinent, it is clear that African women continue to beat even higher odds than their peers in developed economies. Therefore there is a clear window of opportunity for female entrepreneurs to be a key driving force in the continent’s future prosperity if only their potential were to be fully unlocked.

The Transformative Power of Technology

Access to technology could be the key to unlocking this potential as, such tools could be essential for female entrepreneurs in starting, growing a business and overcoming the barriers they face. As we have seen, African women make up around 50% of entrepreneurs on the continent but when it comes to SMEs only 9% are female-led whilst only 10% of tech businesses are run by African women (The World Bank). Given their integral roles within their communities, women are best placed to identify and apply technological tools to solve real problems. Therefore putting technology in the hands of women is likely to breed local solutions for local problems and give birth to indigenous innovation.

“Because women face barriers such as poverty, illiteracy, and discrimination when getting training and education, we are witnessing the rise of a second digital divide. It is important to understand that technology and access to the Internet are essential to women’s empowerment across the continent and it is key to overcoming these barriers in the first place.” Rainatou Sow, Founder of Make Every Woman Count.

Currently, in Africa’s burgeoning, male-dominated tech scene women remain largely underrepresented, despite their obviously strong entrepreneurial nature. How do we begin to engage African women in technology and close this ‘second digital divide?’

Her Future Africa

Organisations such as ATBN – the Africa Technology Business Network, a social enterprise and global network focused on accelerating technology growth and impact in Africa, are taking the lead. I spoke with Founder Eunice Baguma Ball, about how the organisation is supporting African female tech entrepreneurs.

Her Future Africa – Accra, Ghana

The purpose of ATBN, Eunice says is to “to support African tech entrepreneurs by connecting them to the global tech ecosystem (investors and networks), and equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in the industry.” ATBN does this through programmes and events, both on the ground and abroad.

For the purpose of supporting African women in technology, ATBN founded ‘Her Future Africa‘ an entrepreneurship and innovation skills programme for female founders. After noticing the significant underrepresentation of women-led businesses in accelerator programmes across the continent, Her Future Africa was set up to help to fill this gap, “In recent years there have emerged a lot of business accelerator programmes in places like Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya etc which has been great for the startup ecosystem in Africa, but there was always a big gap when it came to the representation of women-led enterprises, women in pitches and programmes. It is not uncommon to find say only 1 in 20 of the startups in these programmes being women-led.”

Her Future Africa held its first programme earlier this year in Accra, Ghana with 32 young women, selected from over 200 applicants from across Africa. The purpose of the programme is to equip young African women with the skills, insights and networks needed to launch high-impact, technology-enabled businesses: “the programme includes tutorials on pitching, project proposals, accessing funding etc – overall creating an environment where they can test and validate their ideas and business models.”

 

One of the key issues Eunice noticed with the African tech industry and similar programmes was that often, the way they were promoted could exclude women “a lot of the programmes we saw emerging had been modelled on the States/ Silicon Valley where there is a very “bro” culture with things like late evening drinks and high-intensity competitions“, which may not appeal to African women considering most cultural norms and even security concerns, (women alone at night in certain cities is considered extremely dangerous). Eunice went further and identified that even the language used to promote programmes and events were exclusionary, “terminology like ‘pitch battles’ and references to cut-throat competitions may not appeal to female entrepreneurs who often are looking for support, feedback and collaboration. Many did not even feel they even had a viable business yet and just had an idea.

Her Future Africa seeks to change this narrative in the tech startup world and simply asks potential candidates: Are you passionate about a problem you see in your community? and do you have any ideas to help solve this problem?

Eunice says, “it is about being intentional with the language so that people feel included.”

As a result, the programme opened its doors to a wide range of young female entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. Take for instance Edna Mate-cole who came up with the idea for an app called ‘NannyCab‘ when she identified the issue of access to childcare in her community which was holding back local women from working and Ivy Barley who began the programme wanting to start a project to get more African girls and women to pursue careers in STEM  but was not clear on how to go about it. Ivy now has an established business: Developers in Vogue which has gone on to win funding and awards to help kick-start her business.

 

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 “In societies where there is a lot of pushback for women who are go-getters and not the traditional ‘good African woman,” Eunice says, ATBN through Her Future Africa is working to create safe spaces for women to enter the tech world. They are also now creating a book called, Founding Women which will share the stories of African female tech founders from across Africa and the diaspora. The goal is to demystify tech and inspire more young African women to join the sector.

 

When asked what advice she would offer to women in Africa and within the diaspora who want to get into technology Eunice says “it (tech) is not this exclusive club like the way it sounds, a lot of women are already in tech – they own websites, they represent the majority on social media, they are continually engaging with tech every day. It’s false that you have to be a developer or a coder. Just focus on the problem you want to solve, tech is just the tool for solving that problem.”

It is clear that there exists so much untapped potential for women in Technology on the African continent. Governments and stakeholders need to do more to foster women’s technological development although programmes such as Her Future Africa and many others are making great progress for the cause.

Have you any thoughts as to how African women’s technological development could be fostered? Comment below

             Eunice Baguma Ball – Founder of ATBN

To find out more about the Her Future Africa programme visit www.herfutureafrica.org 

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