CTA expertise informs concept for new International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture

Originally written on Thursday, 12 March 2020

Extensive consultation with CTA and other stakeholders has resulted in a concept note for the establishment of a new International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture. Once operationalised, the Digital Council will advise governments and other relevant actors with the aim of realising the immense potential of digitalisation for the global agri-food system.

The concept note was presented at a side event at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin, Germany on 16 January 2020 and endorsed by 72 agriculture ministers. Its development by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) along with CTA and eight other co-publishing agencies came at the request of 74 agriculture ministers and high-level representatives from international organisations during GFFA 2019, the theme of which was ‘Agriculture goes digital – Smart solutions for future farming’.

The GFFA 2019 event, which CTA was instrumental in structuring, underlined some of the agri-food system’s most pressing challenges, notably the high rate of global hunger and malnutrition, continued population growth and the impacts of climate change, water scarcity, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. Against this backdrop, digitalisation was identified as a possible game changer in supporting and accelerating critically needed agricultural transformation.

The communiqué issued after GFFA 2019 declared the assembled ministers’ intention to use the potential of digitalisation to increase agricultural production and productivity, and specifically for digital solutions ‘to support environmentally sound and animal welfare-oriented production, increase the quality and safety of agricultural products, reduce production costs, improve the availability of information throughout the food system and facilitate trade’.

As an initial step in realising this ambition, the communiqué called on the FAO to draw up a concept for the establishment of an International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture that will advise governments and other relevant actors in the agri-food system, drive the exchange of ideas and experiences, and consequently harness the opportunities presented by digitalisation.

Active role in the consultation process

Over the following year, the FAO consulted approximately 355 stakeholders from more than 100 organisations. Besides CTA, these included the African Development Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development, World Bank Group and World Trade Organisation. Michael Hailu, CTA’s director, and I participated in several of the consultations, including the first design thinking session on 13 June in Rome, Italy, the aim of which was to begin defining the Digital Council’s role and activities and how it will interact with different stakeholders.

As a leader in the use of digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag), we were able to share many aspects of CTA’s expertise and experience in this area, such as policy influencing, the promotion of precision agriculture and access for smallholder farmers to innovative finance and insurance services.

Between 17 October and 8 November 2019, the draft concept note was opened up for stakeholder comment online. During the presentation of the final concept note at GFFA 2020, Michael Hailu was one of the panellists invited to comment on the recommendations for the Digital Council’s implementation. He stressed that although a council like the one proposed does not yet exist, numerous organisations already have D4Ag activities. In order to operationalise the concept note, he said, it is essential for the Digital Council to learn from existing initiatives and avoid re-inventing the wheel.

An immense asset throughout the consultation process was The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report, 2018-2019, which CTA published in June 2019. Serving as a baseline, it is the first attempt to consolidate evidence and provide the knowledge and proof of impact of digitalisation efforts that will guide meaningful policy and investment decisions going forward. We shared the report with the FAO to support our technical input to the concept note as the report outlines many of the issues still facing digitalisation as well as recommendations for creating a D4Ag ecosystem that is coordinated, sustainable and inclusive. At present, this ecosystem is still too fragmented to have impact at scale.

Digitalisation for the beneficiaries of the agri-food system

Now that the concept note has been endorsed, the financial arrangements to support the Digital Council’s operations will be developed. Subject to funding approval, the council will be formalised and the Inter-governmental Representatives’ Group – one of five proposed operating units – will determine the initial agenda.

I strongly believe in the need for and importance of such a council for a promising sector like agriculture. But as the Digital Council comes into operation, steps must be taken to ensure that it is driven by the needs of the beneficiaries of the agri-food system, with the expectation that digitalisation could be a means to address those needs in a potentially transformative way.

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