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A case for embracing the fourth industrial revolution

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Added 2nd September 2019 10:00 AM

The price of mobile internet in Africa has dropped 30% since 2015, but there is still a digital divide due to an IT skills gap

 By Boaz Blackie Keizire

This week, global policy and business leaders are converging in Accra Ghana from 3 – 6 September at African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), the continent’s most influential gathering around Africa’s largest economic sector - agriculture.

Building on success

Last year’s forum is a hard act to follow; generally accepted as the best yet it attracted 2,800 delegates from around the world, filling the ultra-modern convention centre in downtown Kigali, Rwanda, and focused on the need for strong, accountable leadership. Even when this year’s with the theme is ‘Growing Digital – leveraging digital transformation to drive sustainable food systems in Africa’, the centrality of policy, state capacity and leadership remains the anchor to get digital solutions to scale and will be key in keeping alive the commitments made by Africa’s leaders in the Malabo Declaration, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Plan (CAADP), the Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

As the President of Ghana H.E. Nana Akufo-Addo hosts government and business leaders from all over the world, the sense of ‘Growing Digital’ captures the zeitgeist of our time. This is evidenced from the night life of Accra with screens showcasing AGRF2019 and other advertisements, all looking like the Times Square -downtown Manhattan in New York, a clear evidence that technology is now part of every-day lives and has moved at a staggering pace. Even an iPhone today with just 4GB of Random-Access Memory (RAM) packs more than one million times the memory of Apollo 11's brain: The computer that guided man to the Moon. Yet ‘big data’, ‘block chains’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ are terms you will rarely hear from a 50 plus year old government official or most of us would fail to define. It is often termed the fourth industrial revolution, and right now it is out of reach for most of Africa’s farmers. There is an urgent need to equip the next generation with the digital skills to harness digital solutions that may still be over their horizon but will be with us any minute now. Digitalization certainly appears to be a promising tool for leapfrogging the agricultural transformation trajectory. However, urgent policy actions have to be made to facilitate the average smallholder farmer, to afford and use these digital and technological solutions. This is principally because the costs of acquisition, operation and maintenance of emerging farming innovations are beyond the reach of farmers in the continent, most of whom get by on less than $2 per day 

Shooting for the stars – governments and states have been central

The growth of ICT in the last decade, though not clearly traceable, is linked to governments liberal systems and policy to allow private investments and this has provided many opportunities to overcome some of the challenges faced in agriculture. Governments have been deliberate in licencing or offering incentives to allow the increase in the use of mobile-broadband access devices, the Internet of things (IoT), drones, smart networks, capacity for big data analytics, and artificial intelligence have provided agriculture stakeholders with some key tools and technologies to improve production and marketing processes. ICT on farm can give an overview at the touch of a button and can redefine how public, private and civic society work together to transform the whole sector. IoT can automatically gather data from embedded devices in soil, farm tools and waterways that can revolutionise land management, combating soil degradation and drought. 

We have already seen how technology has allowed other sectors in Africa to leap ahead: Mpesa in Kenya’s banking sector and Uber in transport. It is now time for African governments to champion the fourth industrial revolution in the agriculture sector, an opportunity to generate wealth and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farming communities. Technology today gives Africa the opportunity to leapfrog old agricultural technologies.

It’s not all talk

The mobile phone spread with astonishing speed across the continent and has transformed the way that people communicate, access information and conduct financial transactions. They are the biggest disruptors of digital innovations and 44% of sub-Saharans are now on mobile subscriptions. That figure is set to grow to 50% by 2025, making 634 million subscribers. Mobiles allow greater access to information and services including finance and links to market, they can increase productivity by ensuring farmers are better informed, and can overcome the geographical, social and economic isolation of rural farming communities by connecting them to the value chain. 

The price of mobile internet in Africa has dropped 30% since 2015, but there is still a digital divide due to an IT skills gap, lack of digital literacy and the lack of funding for agtech start-ups. Technology is a way of engaging an increasingly youthful population, and with a youth bulge that will see 10-12 million young people entering the job market every year for the next decade it is vital that governments prioritise education. African universities need to include programming and algorithm design and farmers need to become tech-savvy. Government policies must be deliberate to, for example; train extension agents to pass skills on to farmers and support last-mile infrastructure, including off-grid electricity solutions, and more affordable, more reliable mobile internet. 

The prize of a deliberate policies to practical digital solutions for agriculture is worth the effort and opportunities are endless:

· Land rights can be addressed using block chain technology and land surveying by drones

· Tailored weather forecasts by SMS such as those from CropMon in Kenya that delivers real-time, specific, localised information on conditions using the exact locale of a farm registered on its database

· Access to simple finance as provided by Safaricom’s Mpesa in East Africa

· Access to machinery and tools like Ghana’s TROTRO that uses a mobile phone to summon the services of a tractor

· Input buying using services like iPRocure, that allows Kenyan farmers to get multiple quotes from suppliers

· Precision farming using sensors, for example controlling drip irrigation remotely from a mobile phone as provided by Tele-Irrigation Kit in Nigeria

· Pest and disease management using services like Ghana’s CowTribe that delivers vaccine information and advice to last-mile farmers and alerts them to disease outbreaks while providing practical advice

And so much more: transportation, market price information, access to storage, and food safety and traceability. All this from the humble, almost ubiquitous mobile phone.

But the phone is just the start. Africa has been digitalising fast. Emerging digital technologies, such as blockchains, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics, have the potential to fundamentally change African economies. Big data, block chains and drones are just some of the opportunities looming on the horizon. How African countries harness digital technologies will determine the future competitiveness of African agriculture and its contribution to African economies. However, solutions need to be tailored to local conditions, then digitisation along the agriculture value chain will ensure Africa’s rural areas aren’t left behind. 

Walking the walk

There is no doubt the pace of digital disruption over the last two decades has been breathtaking, transforming every sector of economy including agriculture. By using diverse technologies – smartphones, GPS, satellite imagery, big data, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things – farmers can optimise crop growth and farm productivity. And now it’s time that the tools we ask governments to use reflect this revolution. 

Africa governments are not leaving anything to chance. Last year’s AGRF saw the presentation of CAADP’s first biennial review; developed to measure progress while keeping accountability in agriculture, it emphasises the importance of evidence-based leadership and policy making. This first biennial review is acknowledged as a good start, and the second will be out soon and due to be discussed at the 2020 African Union summit. In keeping with this year’s AGRF theme, its future is electronic, and plans are in place for the third biennial report to be digitised. The E-BR (Electronic Biennial Report) will include electronic registering and digital tracking. 

Meanwhile, the Strengthening Agricultural Policy Practice in Africa (SAPPA) aims to support CAADP aspirations and the Malabo targets using a suite of electronic policy analysis tools. Initially the programme was developed using a grant from AGRA to BEAT (Barefoot Education Afrika Trust) and during its implementation in a handful of African countries there was a dawning realisation that it also needed to be digitised to reach its full potential. The resulting SAPPA portal will improve access to agricultural policy information by state and non-state leaders in the agriculture sector and provides country specific policy data. It is composed of four parts:

· The APPI (Agriculture Policy Practice Index) tool, using web-based self-assessment, reviews the policy mix of markets, institutions, technology and infrastructure

· The AgriCitizensNET (ACN), accessed from any computer or android mobile device, is a communication platform similar to WhatsApp allowing producers, traders, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats to discuss anything they like. It identifies trending issues and then, using facilitated dialogue, produces products and reports for use in policy identification and reform

· LeaRN (Leadership Regional Network) is a peer learning facility for rural transformation and uses policy management tools to help policy formation and implementation based on CAADP principles and Malabo aims

· The SAPPA will databank hold digitised country data to be easily accessed by policy makers and researchers, including useful graphics and analysis. This will eventually be linked to national central statistics offices to enhance existing country data

These e-tools will increase access to country data and support policy reform in African agriculture. 

Let’s not miss the boat

Technology is thriving in Africa and is offering many new innovations and breakthroughs that will allow the African continent to get ahead of the curve. The winds of change are blowing through agriculture, but if African governments fail to set their sails the opportunities will be gone and catching up just won’t be possible. 

At this AGRF, the 2019 Africa Food Prize will be award the winner with $100,000 prize. Watch out who this will be – you will love it. 

The writer is the head of policy and advocacy at AGRA and also a 2017 Fellow for the Aspen New Voices Fellowship

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