“[ICT] is going to increase productivity, increase incomes, reduce costs – all good things that are going to make agriculture more effective and therefore attract a new generations of farmers,” said Ishmael Sunga, chief executive officer of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions.
Creating jobs for Africa’s youth was the theme of the business forum, which was held November 27 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and attended by policymakers and civil society leaders from across Africa and Europe. Côte d’Ivoire vice-president Daniel Kablan Duncan kicked off the conference by saying that youth employment in Africa was a challenge that leaders could not afford to ignore.
Josefa Sacko, the African Union Commission’s commissioner for rural economy and agriculture, put that challenge in perspective by citing recent waves of African migrants who have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean.
“We want to find a sustainable solution to create jobs,” Sacko said, noting that agriculture is a great place to start. Agriculture provides jobs for about 60% of Africa’s workforce, according to the 2017 African Economic Outlook.
Tailor financial instruments for young entrepreneurs
The CTA panel, hosted by CTA Director Michael Hailu, highlighted how access to financing remains an obstacle to agricultural development in Africa. “Banks are still reluctant not just to lend to young people, but also to lend to rural people who are excluded from mainstream financial services,” said Gerald Otim, a young Ugandan entrepreneur. Otim’s firm, Ensibuuko, is trying to change that by offering digital accounting services for farmers that they can access via their mobile phones. “We believe that by doing this we’ll be able to make [savings and credit cooperatives] more efficient, but also make them attractive to young people,” Otim said.
Edson Mpyisi, an agricultural economist at the African Development Bank, said the bank is trying to better tailor its financial instruments to young entrepreneurs. In April, the bank held a workshop in Nigeria where young “agripreneurs” pitched project ideas, and about half of the proposals focused on ICT, according to Mpyisi. “We’ve noticed that there’s a huge interest there and so, as a bank, we’re there to support that,” he added.
Another theme of the discussion was the impact of getting farmers access to real-time information on everything from crop pricing to soil data. Henri Danon, who runs the Ivorian government’s e-agricultural program, said that farmers who know how much their crops sell for in town could negotiate a better price with buyers. That pricing information can help lift them out of poverty, he said. ICT is one way of getting Côte d’Ivoire’s digital-savvy youth more involved in agriculture, Danon noted. “We need to get young people to develop applications that will serve the agricultural world,” he said. Other participants echoed Danon’s emphasis on the power of pricing information. “Technology makes the market more transparent in the sense that you’re able to get information about markets and prices on a wide-ranging area,” Sunga said.
Encourage smallholder farmers to adopt ICT solutions
Prodded by a question from the audience, panelists turned to how farmers can be encouraged to adopt ICT solutions. “Deploying innovation and ICT is [one thing],” said Jihane Ajijti, head of projects and development for Southern Africa at fertilizer company OCP Africa, but “having high adoption from smallholder farms is something else.” To scale up ICT agricultural tools, the technology needs to appeal directly to smallholder farmers rather than be forced on them, Ajijti said.
Hamza Rkha Chaham, head of international strategy at Airinov, said that partnering with local entrepreneurs helped his French drone company make inroads in Africa. “We were able to leverage a lot of insights from [CTA’s] networks, from their understanding of the existing ecosystems,” Chaham said, adding that Airinov uses local partnerships in many of the African countries in which it does business.
LaVandez Jones, co-founder of Hello Tractor, a startup that lets farmers request tractors via text message, agreed with this need to tap a local network to boost the adoption of ICT solutions. The firm is, for example, using local “booking agents” in Nigeria to more easily connect farmers with tractors, Jones said.
ICT tools have opened up a new frontier of agricultural data for entrepreneurs to exploit, and more such data could be on the way. Mpyisi, the AfDB economist, said that the bank is pushing for more agricultural statistics on things like soil, farm size, and production to be at the fingertips of farmers and policymakers.