Digital agriculture to help Africa through coronavirus

Originally written by Benjamin Addom and Sabdiyo Dido, and published by CTA on Tuesday, 28 April 2020

As COVID-19 continues to devastate lives all over the world, agriculture and food systems come under critical strain. Recessions, food shortages, hunger and malnutrition are feared to be likely, with grave impact on vulnerable communities in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is largely dominated by smallholder farmers, many of whom already farm under severe strain of climatic variability and resource constraints. With the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on food and nutrition security expected to be harsh, poverty and malnourishment could become even worse. SSA must guard the basic operations required to produce, trade and supply food. Digital agriculture offers a glimpse of hope.

The progress made with digitalising agriculture in Africa over the years can be used as a strong foundation for new initiatives to alleviate the COVID-19’s impact on food security.

The pandemic is already accelerating Africa’s digital transformation, governments and stakeholders need to bolster these efforts to digitalise Africa’s agriculture by improving infrastructure and delivery systems essential for food production, trade and supply chains.

Digitalisation is already being used to secure basic supplies essential for farm operations activities in SSA, reaching farmers with advisory, markets, financial, and supply chain services – all essential lifelines during such difficult times.

In recent years, CTA – which is due to close in 2020 – has championed new technologies, helping smallholders and other food system actors adopt them to fulfil Africa’s digitalisation potential. Driving this progress is more important now than ever.

Using digital services to secure essential farm operations

Food production operations such as ploughing, planting, weeding and harvesting are seasonal time-critical activities, delays in accessing inputs and agronomic advice have a devastating impact on food and nutrition security. While governments are urged to consider food production and supply logistics essential activities, applying digital solutions not only reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but also enhances efficiency amidst possible labour shortages.

FarmIT in Kenya provides farmers with agronomic support, market linkages and an e-commerce solution, for example, while Zambia-based eMsika is Africa’s leading platform for wholesale and retail trade in agricultural products.

Availability of real-time data using remote sensing tools such as drones and satellites, coupled with mobile telephone and internet access are key enablers, while inclusive systems particularly serving women and underserved groups are essential to make a difference.

Keeping food supply chains moving

Growing start-ups across the continent must be supported to keep supply chains moving and ensure that food reaches everyone. Indeed, as global supply chains break down, protecting local markets and businesses will become even more crucial.

E-commerce, produce delivery and equipment sharing platforms all enable continued production and distribution, while upholding social distancing measures. For instance, marketing platform Mkulima Young and G-Soko connects farmers to suppliers and distributors, helping produce reach traders and consumers.

Ever-increasing rates of internet penetration and mobile phone access mean the potential for digital commerce is vast in SSA, but still under-exploited.

Strengthening digital services in logistical operations will help ensure food gets to hard-to-reach communities, especially when it comes to cross-border trade. E-commerce platforms are making this movement more efficient – as seen with the European Union’s introduction of “green lanes” for essential goods, to prevent freight hold-ups.

Reaching vulnerable populations

The worlds hungry people are expected to double due to the impact of COVID-19, with the consequence on the most vulnerable such as women, children and the elderly only beginning to emerge. The impact of this pandemic will be especially devastating for these populations if food supply is interrupted, further widening the access gaps. Food assistance and social safety programmes should be supported.

Digital tools such as Chowberry are helping to ensure food and information reaches the most vulnerable populations and avoid waste – even when under lockdown, in quarantine or self-isolating. While not always designed with these groups in mind, they can be adapted to reach those most in need. For instance, Ghanaian start-up Farmerline is sharing vital COVID-19 updates with at-risk farming communities through its voice message service.

Bolstering food systems

Providing immediate relief is a priority for now. But this crisis presents an opportunity to improve digital infrastructure and ensure more robust support systems for smallholder farmers, by fostering stronger partnerships between African government and the private sector to further advance digitalisation in the longer term.

With urgent action, we can build on existing digital services to ensure food and supplies reach the poorest in the world now – to cope with today’s coronavirus crisis, and to strengthen tomorrow’s food systems. This can ensure food supply in the short term during the health crisis as well as creating a more sustainable system for the long term.

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