Rome: Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is referred to as the “Silicon Savannah” of Africa because of its buzzing digital economy. Many African coastal countries benefit from fast internet, thanks to undersea cables, and 4G mobile networks are expanding rapidly across the continent.
With the largest area of arable uncultivated land in the world, a youthful population – almost 60 per cent of its people are below the age of 25 – and vast natural resources, sub-Saharan Africa is uniquely positioned to double or even triple its current agricultural productivity.
For this to happen, a digital transformation of the food and agriculture sector is needed. This requires tackling existing barriers, such as limited infrastructure in rural areas, insufficient funding for agriculture, and inadequate investment in research and development, agro-innovation and agricultural entrepreneurship.
It is also essential that digital transformation for agriculture is anchored to addressing low digital skills in the population, especially among women, youth and rural populations, through customized digital skills development programmes. Moreover, as most interventions were at the production level, the digitalization process should encompass the entire agriculture value chain.
Besides, Sub-Saharan Africa is served by multiple undersea cables. Prioritising the connection to these cables to improve broadband access for both coastal and landlocked countries is needed. Undersea cables can also be complemented with national terrestrial broadband backbones that link both urban and rural areas.
Such an increase in agricultural productivity would help lift more than 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who live on $1.9 or less a day out of extreme poverty and improve the livelihood of approximately 250 million smallholder farmers and pastoralists in the region.
However, while the digital revolution currently underway in Sub-Saharan Africa offers enormous potential for economic growth and agricultural productivity, still much of the 47 sub-Saharan nations remain unconnected. About one-third of the population here remains out of reach of mobile broadband signals, and only 28 per cent has any access to the internet.
This has implications for the local agricultural sector, where productivity could be easily boosted by new digital technologies such as e-commerce, sensors, drones and better weather forecasts.
A new report co-published today by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) offers one of the most comprehensive overviews to date on the status of digitalization in the region, focusing on digital agriculture transformation. It says Sub-Saharan Africa is served by multiple undersea cables. Prioritising the connection to these cables to improve broadband access for both coastal and landlocked countries is needed. Undersea cables can also be complemented with national terrestrial broadband backbones that link both urban and rural areas.
The report – Status of Digital Agriculture in 47 Sub-Saharan African Countries – takes a deep dive into the status quo and the challenges that countries face along their digital transformation journeys.
An overview is given for each of the 47 countries on a variety of key indicators, such as access to electricity, ownership of mobile devices, number of apps in the national language, the gender gap in social media use, and regulatory frameworks.
But the study goes further than that, highlighting local examples and initiatives that should be promoted, replicated and scaled up to advance the region’s digital agriculture transformation.
“Agriculture modernization and rural transformation provide real opportunities for maximum impact on growth and shared prosperity for countries in the Africa region. Digitalization helps maximize the benefits digital technologies can bring in transforming societies, improving livelihoods through better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life, leaving no one behind,” said Abebe Haile-Gabriel, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa.
Taking stock of the status quo and identifying such obstacles can go a long way in helping policymakers realize this untapped potential, the report says.
“There is an urgent need to invest in last-mile connectivity to strengthen digital infrastructure generally and enable the development of inclusive digital agriculture strategies to advance agricultural transformation in Africa,” said Anne-Rachel Inné, ITU’s Regional Director for Africa.
Going forward, the study also offers suggestions on how to tackle these obstacles. They include encouraging governments to develop national digital agriculture strategies, creating a more conducive business environment for investors, and increasing collaboration among countries, international organizations and the private sector, so as to create an inclusive set of digital public goods in agriculture that are sustainable and scalable.
– global bihari bureau