The history of African farming is often linked to the imagery of poverty but the sector is the main source of revenue, employing over 60% of the continent’s population. Recently, African leaders have expressed the need to transform smallholder agriculture to a more industrialised system, with the potential to end hunger and poverty. The continent’s ambition to transform agriculture was articulated during the African Development Bank (AfDB) Annual Meeting held in Lusaka, Zambia on 23-27 May 2016.
One session (The Road to Agricultural Transformation in Africa – Feed Africa) organised on 24 May discussed agricultural transformation in Africa. Representatives from IFAD, FAO, AfDB, and the private sector sat on an elevated panel to advise on the development framework of the AfDB Feeding Africa Action Plan. Panellists argued that agriculture is a business and could be powered by greater involvement of women and youth as well technologies (digital literacy).
The right technology and information system for agriculture
Mr Périn Saint-Ange, Associate Vice President of IFAD, said that there is a need for adequate technology to facilitate and de-risk the kinds of investments leveraged for the agricultural sector. “If you don’t use the right technology you can very quickly run the risk of your crop failing, your livestock dying, and your irrigation schemes not working. We need to emphasise that technology will be taken up when we have adequate technology. Africa is becoming better and better prepared for capacity building to take place, for the right enabling environment, for leadership to be able to drive growth, and at IFAD, we are also working in these areas. I have the pleasure of confirming that every year, for the next 3 years, we will invest US$0.5 billion in agriculture in Africa and this is to complement AfDB’s engagement”, he added.
FAO has put in place a significant information system using satellite data to build shock-resilient systems for different countries. “The Global Information and Early Warning System is using spatial data, which now can give us information in real time about what is happening across the globe in terms of crops and weather,” said Mr Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa. “Things that cannot be done in 5 years, can be done in 10 months. I strongly believe on behalf of FAO, that within the next 10 years or less Africa’s agriculture will be very different.” He also said that extension officers and journalists can also use the platform to inform smallholder farmers and audiences, depending on their needs.
Industry 4.0 can foster agricultural transformation in Africa
Several studies have acknowledged the usefulness of data and technology in agricultural transformation. Datasets assembled from decades of experience in agriculture are currently being used in developed countries across the world to make agriculture more precise and improve yields. That mix of ‘internet of things’, big data, mobile internet and smart technologies is what is often referred to as industry 4.0.
According to Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI), industry 4.0 is: “A paradigm shift... made possible by technological advances which constitute a reversal of conventional production process logic. Simply put, this means that industrial production machinery no longer simply ‘processes’ the product, but that the product communicates with the machinery to tell it exactly what to do.”
An example of a project that combines big data and smart technologies is the CTA ‘Market-Led, User-Owned ICT4Ag Enabled Information Service’ (MUIIS) project. This project will use data generated by satellites and mobile technology to improve the production and marketing of crops in Uganda. Closely linked to the MUIIS project is the Data Revolution for Agriculture project which has showcased a number of examples of how open data can be used to improve smallholder farming and nutritional security.
For Dr Adesina Akinwumi, President of AfDB, Africa must improve its readiness to prepare for the digital revolution. “Africa has missed earlier industrial revolutions. We cannot miss the 4th industrial revolution,” he said. Under the Feed Africa action plan the AfDB will work with partners to raise funds to invest in agricultural commodities and agro-ecological zones.
Michael J Vincent, a Senior Partner in Monitor at Deloitte Africa, believes in the use of smart technologies and data in creating informed policies and agricultural transformation. As a private sector observer at the meetings, Vincent sees potential in industry 4.0 in helping Africa end hunger and poverty through agriculture.