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Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the prospects for global food security looked grim. In January, the FAO’s World Food Price Index—which tracks the global price of food—neared historic highs, driven by labour shortages due to COVID-19 and extreme weather caused by climate change. In the Horn of Africa, which has experienced a four-year drought, it’s estimated that one person is dying from hunger every 48 seconds.
The war in Ukraine has exacerbated this already dire situation. For many countries, particularly those in Africa, the impact of this war could be catastrophic. For example, Egypt imports 80% of all the wheat it consumes from Ukraine and Russia. With wheat providing almost a fifth of the calories currently consumed in Africa, this disruption in global food supply is putting the continent on a path to another crisis in the near future.
While the short-term prospects for food are less than favourable, there is a lot of opportunity and promise in self-sustainable agricultural systems for Africa’s food security, both immediately and longer term. To this end, the potential of digital innovation in developing more resilient and more productive agri-food systems cannot be understated.
For Africa’s food security, the challenge is compounded by the pressures of climate change, which can translate into anything from rising food costs to malnutrition, and even outright starvation.
Empowering smallholder farmers—the backbone of Africa’s agricultural sector—through mobile-based digital solutions is key to transforming agri-food systems in a way that promotes greater efficiency, resilience, inclusiveness and sustainability. By gaining access to information and advisory services, financial systems and key markets, smallholder farmers can access actionable agricultural insights in real-time, allowing them to optimise arable land utilisation and farm production.
In Kenya, for example, Safaricom’s integrated mobile platform, DigiFarm, uses drones to perform aerial surveys of smallholder farms. This gives farmers a better understanding of the topography of the land, and helps them keep track of the best time to spray fields for pests or to fertilise their crops. This platform has so far provided inclusive services for 1.4 million smallholders with financial support, access to improved data inputs, training and market access. Forty-eight percent of these smallholders are women.
Digitalisation in agriculture also helps farmers connect with customers in new ways. For example, M-Kulima is an online marketplace developed by a farmer for farmers in Tanzania. Sellers list their produce on the marketplace and can connect directly with buyers without any need for an intermediary. The app also provides weather forecasts, helping farmers to better plan their growing seasons.
We have also seen remarkable progress with the cloud-based platform MyFarmWeb, which uses internet of things sensors to capture real-time data about crop production, saving time, reducing costs and delivering improved farming practices. By supporting decision-making for better soil and crop health, effective water use, and precision fertiliser and pesticide application, it helps improve farm productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Read more: A Unique Diversity: Understanding the sustainability and global integration of African businesses, by Joerg Hofstetter, Anita McGahan, Baniyelme Zoogah & Brian Silver
Our recent report, Towards a Connected Climate, also explored other ways that digital technologies can help break the cycle of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. This includes boosting financial inclusion among rural farming communities, especially women and youth, across the agricultural value chain. Our Vodacom subsidiary, Mezzanine, has rolled out a digital farming voucher scheme that enables communities to plant during the current season to ensure a local supply of food for the next 12 months, mitigating down-stream risk and supporting food security.
The transformative impact of digitalisation in African agriculture is clear to see but will require considered interventions to make it a reality. In their Agricultural Outlook 2022–2031, for the coming decade the OECD and FAO underlined the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration in the development of digital agricultural strategies. Governments, the private sector and civil society need to work together to introduce regulatory reform that incentivises long-term investment, as well as promoting digital literacy across Africa.
As members of the OECD’s new Climate and Health Forum Engagement Group, we believe that access to digital devices, smartphones and reliable network coverage is the key to supporting this changing industry. It is by putting digital tools directly in the hands of African farmers that we can give them to means to leverage new technologies to farm more strategically and efficiently. This, in turn, will ensure that they are better prepared to respond to and navigate the market and supply chain disruptions like those we face today.
The case for the application of innovative technologies in agriculture has never been stronger. As we are witnessing first-hand, global political turbulence often has far-reaching consequences. For Africa’s food security, the challenge is compounded by the pressures of climate change, which can translate into anything from rising food costs to malnutrition, and even outright starvation. As such, it is imperative that we appropriately harness the power of digital technologies to improve food security for all.
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