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Digitisation Could Transform African Agriculture

Farmers are producing without knowing market demand for their produce which leads to food waste or scarcity. Technology can fix the food system by ensuring that information is shared timeously across the value chain. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Dec 2 2020 (IPS) - Placing an online order for farming inputs saves Velebantfu Dlamini about USD12 in transport fees for a round trip of about 320 kilometres. The 26-year-old vegetable farmer from Nkhungwini in the Shiselweni Region, south of Eswatini, uses a portal to order from the National Agriculture Marketing Board (NAMBoard) Farm Store. NAMBoard then delivers his order leaving Dlamini with time to stay in the field and look after his crops.

“Ordering through the portal is convenient although the delivery of the inputs takes about two weeks longer,” Dlamini told IPS, adding: “During the COVID-19 lockdown, I waited for fertilisers for about two months.”

NAMBoard has established the portal through a European Union-funded project, the Climate Smart Agriculture Market Oriented Agriculture Project (CSMA). The portal is only connected to the NAMBoard Farm Store, which has disadvantages for the farmers as the prices are not competitive.

Besides using the portal, Dlamini said he communicates with NAMBoard extension officers via WhatsApp to give them updates on his crops. He can take pictures of the crops, and if diseased, they can help with a diagnosis and a possible resolution.

“The extension officers hardly visit me, but they’re up to date on what is happening on my field,” said Dlamini, adding: “That means they have time to visit other farmers because we’re many.”

Dlamini is one of the very few farmers in African countries who have access to digital services. According to a Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and Dalberg Advisors report, more than 90 percent of the market for digital services that support African smallholders remains untapped, and it could be worth more than US$2.26 billion.

The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report 2018-19 states that an inclusive, digitally-enabled agricultural transformation could drive greater engagement in farming from women and youth and create employment opportunities along the value chain.

Speaking to IPS, former CSMA project manager, Bheki Ginidza, said there is a need to empower consumer associations so that they can request food people want to eat to be healthy. The next step is consolidating information systems within the markets in Africa so that it’s clear what consumers are going to eat and in what quantities each year.

“Right now, farmers produce without this information which leads to flooding the market, which result in food waste, or scarcity which increases food prices,” he said.

Ginindza said that once all the information is in place, it could be uploaded to a portal that links farmers with the market and input suppliers. For now, everyone operates on ‘gut instincts’.

“Then the information can be disseminated to all farmers via mobile phones,” said Ginindza, noting that there was a high penetration of mobile networks in African countries. “In short, we need technology that will ensure information is communicated at the right time across the value chain.”

Technology in agriculture came under sharp focus during the one-day Resetting the Food System from Farm to Fork summit hosted by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN). According to Emily Ma, lead for food systems at X, the moonshot factory, one of the biggest challenges of the food system and opportunities came from a McKinsey report released a few years ago. The report outlined the level of digitalisation of various industries.

“At the very bottom of the list were food and agriculture,” said Ma.

She urged all players in the food system to start organising how information is shared so that in a world where the average food item travels many miles to its destination, people, consumers and producers, can make the right decisions.

She said as a global tech company, X, the moonshot factory, was paying close attention to their own culture, operations and philosophy of food to prevent food waste. Ma said, a couple of years back, the company realised that food waste was a big challenge within its operations.

“We’re also consumers, so we decided to bring big data, hardware and even robotics to help solve the problem of food waste,” said Ma. An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, which is equivalent to one-third of all food produced for human consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Another tech giant, Microsoft, is looking at its company in terms of reducing food waste. It was analysing its operations and supporting other activities related to reducing carbon and ensuring water efficiency, said its director for agribusiness solutions, Darney Debnam.

“Microsoft is also committed to supporting other companies – whether its retailers or food services with using Microsoft capabilities or other tech to reduce food waste,” said Debnam. He said an example would be ensuring a company maintains a longer shelf life for a product using technology.

Speaking at the same event, Andrea Renda, the senior research fellow and head of Global Governance, Regulation, Innovation, and the Digital Economy (GRID), at the Centre for European Policy Studies, warned that technology could be harmful if not used properly.

“All these technologies can be used for good and bad,” said Renda. “We need to use them carefully and as a means to a more sustainable end because if we don’t use them properly, they can end up exacerbating the problem of sustainability that the current food system has generated over time.”

Renda also said many technologies could be a gamechanger in the food system. He said incorporating technologies in the whole food supply chain for optimised production and distribution plus using the collaborative economy to reduce food waste could enhance the food system and make it more sustainable.


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