How Agtech can ‘dramatically improve’ food insecurity on the continent

Rishon Chimboza
By Rishon Chimboza

Managing Director, Africa Advisory, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Posted on Monday, 1 August 2022 17:39

Workers harvest spinach at a farm in Klippoortjie, outside Johannesburg
Workers harvest spinach at a farm in Klippoortjie, outside Johannesburg, South Africa, April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The Ukraine crisis has sent shockwaves around the world, with a blockade on exports driving prices of food and fertiliser to record highs.

Hopes have grown in recent days that grain shipments could resume, following a deal to unblock exports from Black Sea ports.

But the intense disruption to one of the world’s largest bread baskets this year has worrisome implications for Africa’s food security. In the opinion of the World Food Programme (WFP), famine is likely unless urgent action is taken.

A sustainable solution to food security cannot rely purely on the traditional approach of Western aid transfer. Instead, Africa’s leaders should lean into a continent-wide revolution in agricultural technology.This debate is not just about food; it’s about how Africa develops and prospers in the years ahead.

A looming food crisis on the continent

What’s at stake?

As Africa’s population increases and the effects of climate change take hold, the demand for food will only continue to grow. According to the WFP, the number of people effected by food insecurity in the Sahel has more than tripled since 2018, to 43 million people this year.

There are three key areas where African leaders should focus their attention to turbocharge agtech and have a lasting impact on food security: data, digital tools, and start-ups.

Over the past few decades, Africa’s food import bill has also tripled, reaching around $35bn a year (World Bank figures). Many countries rely on agricultural exports from Russia and Ukraine and the continent is highly vulnerable to global supply chain disruption. The recent reduction in the supply of seeds and fertiliser has led to soaring prices, food shortages, and the risk of starvation.

The impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in exacerbating the food crisis was high on the agenda at last month’s gathering of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Rwanda. It was encouraging to see leaders recognise that this global challenge requires global action.

Embracing the potential of agtech

So, what needs to be done? A new approach is needed to maximise the opportunity presented by tech and innovation to improve the farming process and future-proof Africa’s food system.

Agriculture tech (agtech) could dramatically improve Africa’s ability to produce food for a growing population.

The agtech sector is broad – from artificial intelligence helping maximise crop yields to weather satellites allowing farmers to evaluate crop conditions and precision applicators which reduce the use of harmful fertilisers.

But there remain numerous barriers to agtech’s adoption and scalability in Africa – including limits to internet connectivity and to farmers’ technological knowledge and access to finance. The agriculture sector is itself fragmented, making it harder to scale and embedded solutions.

What can Africa’s leaders do now?

There are three key areas where African leaders should focus their attention to turbocharge agtech and have a lasting impact on food security: data, digital tools, and start-ups.

Firstly, data. Farms hold masses of data that would help leaders understand and improve the food security picture in their countries.

Governments are already using data to track food demand and supply. In Kenya, the Tony Blair Institute has partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture to design an Enterprise Architecture blueprint and data governance framework, with data-sharing agreements in the pipeline.

This enabled the Government of Kenya to carry out a wide-ranging assessment of all available farming and ministry data – the first of its kind. The governance framework ensures the data is consistent and accurate, which will encourage buy-in from farmers and ultimately help reduce post-harvest losses, boost productivity and improve food security. Governments across Africa could replicate approaches like this.

Secondly, are digital tools. The war in Ukraine has worsened existing liquidity challenges facing Africa’s farmers. Technology-based solutions such as mobile money credit could help address this, particularly with the growth in mobile uptake – estimated to be 50% by 2025 (GSMA).

READ MORE Four ways to boost agricultural productivity in Africa

Governments should encourage the development and adoption of innovative agtech tools that have the potential to boost farmers’ profits and crop yields. This means taking steps to increase farmers’ knowledge of the different digital solutions available, addressing barriers such as affordability, and delivering faster, stronger and more reliable internet networks.

Now is the time to maximise the huge potential of technology to support the agriculture sector in Africa, protect our citizens from global shocks, and improve food security on the continent and beyond.

Leaders should also provide an enabling policy environment for these technologies, through effective digital regulation that will help smallholder farmers overcome the obstacles that prevent them from using tech to transition to large-scale production.

Finally, tech start-ups. Africa is an entrepreneurial continent where thousands of new businesses are established every year and where AfCFTA – the world’s largest regional free-trade area – offers a vast marketplace for new ideas.

Africa’s rapidly expanding tech sector is already hosting hundreds of new agtech companies like Hello Tractor in Nigeria and AgroCenta in Ghana, which are driving exciting new innovations.

Yet sub-Saharan Africa underperforms on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index and Africa makes up just 0.02% of the $3.8trn value of the global startup market. Leaders should address an unfavourable business environment that has led to high setup costs, siloed policies and complex regulations.

A more focused effort is required by governments to overcome the barriers holding startups back. This includes backing incubators, accelerators, and hubs that support startups and entrepreneurs. In Rwanda, TBI has partnered with the government and Katapult to boost agtech startups that are providing innovative solutions to food security there and in the wider region.

Towards an agtech future

The crisis in Ukraine must be a turning point in Africa’s agtech future.

At TBI we are partnering with Africa’s leaders as they drive forward a new revolution in agricultural technology and identify the policy levers that will be most effective in creating lasting change.

Now is the time to maximise the huge potential of technology to support the agriculture sector in Africa, protect our citizens from global shocks, and improve food security on the continent and beyond.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options