June 12, 2018 by Alfred Kojo Yeboah
Bennett comes from a long farming tradition and grew maize much the same way as his Ghanaian father. So he was skeptical when Opoku, a young agricultural extension agent, said he would help improve Bennett’s farm. Opuku carried just a mobile tablet loaded with practical farming advice and agribusiness information. No farm equipment. No seeds. No fertilizer.
Unsure of Opoku’s intentions, Bennett quizzed the agent on planting techniques, diseases and other farming challenges. Only after he was convinced that Opoku “knew his stuff,” did Bennett join the agricultural program known as AgroTech.
Bennett was one of more than 500,600 farmers that have gained new market access and up-to-date farming advice through AgroTech’s mobile-equipped field agents and radio shows. Developed by Grameen Foundation and its partners, AgroTech has enabled field agents to quickly understand and analyze farmers’ needs and crop history; create customized farm management plans, deliver agricultural advice; and help farmers procure loans.
Agri-tech advancing in Africa
AgroTech is part of a rising trend across East and West Africa, where agri-tech is taking off. According to a new report from Disrupt Africa, by early 2018, there were 82 agri-tech startups operating across the continent. Half had launched since 2016. More than sixty percent were in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. In addition to this start-up activity, scads more agri-tech innovation is donor-funded, fueled by rising interest in the power of data and digital technology to transform smallholder agriculture in Africa into profitable, sustainable enterprises.
It’s a hopeful development, but one that also calls for increased policy and regulatory attention to support the sector’s growth and to ensure respect for the privacy and property rights of the smallholder farmers at its center.
By its nature, agri-tech runs on data—data that overlaps public and private interests and can quickly mushroom into unmanageable and duplicative terabytes. On the other hand, well managed farmer and farm data can provide unprecedented insights into the nature of farmers’ challenges and their solutions.
The new start-ups are a diverse bunch. According to the report, today one-third apply e-commerce to the agriculture industry, while many others offer information and knowledge sharing platforms or deliver financial technology solutions for farmers.
One example is Farm.ink in Kenya, which combines social media data with agricultural data from CGIAR and the International Livestock Research Institute to create visualize emerging livestock disease outbreaks in Kenya. Farm.ink’s chatbot for farmers and other digital farmer products now cover more than 100,000 users, and send and receive millions of messages a month.
Other applications look to digitize payments to smallholder farmers, as 200 million farmers around the world who receive cash payments operate outside the formal financial system. Digitization of payments could provide an on-ramp for their participation in formal financial and agricultural markets from which they are currently excluded.
Policy challenges of a rising agri-tech sector
All of this innovation is fueled by the near constant collection of data on smallholder farmers: their farm sizes, crops, finances, families, water use, farm environmental conditions and more. With this data comes opportunities for great benefit, but also the possibility that it will be misused, lost, or sold without the consent of the farmers involved. It can also sit unused, an untapped treasure trove of potential insights for social and economic development.
Like any emerging economic sector, agri-tech needs the support of a practical policy environment. Our experience with AgroTech highlighted the need for policies and institutions that both protect farmers’ privacy rights and ensure their data serves their interests. Data should also be available to inform national planning so that citizens can receive the best service, whether provided by a government agency or the private sector.
Therefore, AgroTech’s Board of influential business, academic and policy leaders proposed that the government of Ghana create a national Master Agribusiness Digital Platform (MADP), owned by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Digital service providers would register with MADP, provide the required data for national agricultural planning and evaluation, and provide basic information about their services and locations served.
Agribusinesses, banks and other organizations who have smallholder farmers as clients would use the platform to find providers, promoting the development of a demand-driven competitive sector. The platform would also house public agricultural data, and research-based recommended technologies and practices. It would establish industry standards through posting fair practice codes, and it would recognize achievements.
The government of Ghana has now created a national register of private extension service providers. This is a first step toward expanding private-sector provision of farm advisory information and services to smallholder food crop farmers. Until now, such advisory services have been largely government funded -- and unable to meet farmer demand. The development of a competitive business-service delivery environment is essential to Ghana’s and Africa’s agricultural development. As smallholder agriculture transitions to the digital age, a Master Agriculture Digital Platform would play a pivotal role in this evolution.
AgroTech changed the way Bennett farms. Seeing his productivity increase, Bennett was so enthused with Opoku’s advice that he registered his wife and son for the program. He knows that the training they receive will plant the seeds for an even stronger family business.
Similarly, there is huge potential for the rising agri-tech sector to support agricultural development in poor rural areas. However, only with strong policy support; public, private and donor cooperation; and market-based development will African agriculture transform into a business-oriented and accountable sector.
Alfred Kojo Yeboah, a Social Development Practitioner and a Commonwealth Scholar is a Senior Program Manager with Grameen Foundation in Ghana.