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Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Nadia Oshry, Adam Bradlow, Robin Miller, and Angela R. Hansen of Dalberg Global Development Advisors. Oshry, Bradlow, and Miller are based in Dalberg’s Johannesburg office; Hansen is the director of the Johannesburg office and leads the firm’s Agriculture and Food Security practice. In the article, they evaluate the potential of information and communications technology to boost agricultural production and the incomes of small-scale farmers in Africa.
Through agriculture, Africa has the potential to be the breadbasket of the world and a powerhouse of poverty reduction. Unfortunately for Africans and for the global food system, that tremendous potential is currently laying fallow. Although sub-Saharan Africa’s cereal production has tripled in the past 50 years, cereal output per capita has fallen by 13 percent, compared to increases of almost 50 percent in Asia and South America. One in four Africans are undernourished and over one-third subsist on less than $1 per day.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most food-insecure region in the world, yet it is home to over 60 percent of the world’s unfarmed but arable land. Agriculture is the primary source of employment for up to 80 percent of the region’s ballooning population. And economic growth stemming from agriculture can mean up to seven times more income growth for the poorest of the poor than growth in other sectors (see graph above).
These statistics suggest that traditional development approaches are either not working or not working fast enough. Trend-reversing breakthroughs are urgently needed in African agriculture.
One area to look for these breakthroughs is the information and communications technology (ICT) sector—specifically, mobile technology. While there are mobile applications for nearly every conceivable domain, tools geared toward agriculture are still relatively nascent. Yet the potential is high: by linking rural communities directly to local and global markets, mobile technology can limit the impact of institutional inefficiencies, empower local farmers to navigate their own market relationships, and reduce dependence on weak national infrastructure. Though not a silver bullet, mobile technologies hold the potential to help turn African agriculture into a competitive business that stokes economic growth, reduces poverty, and helps the continent realize its potential.
ICT also seems to be an economic boon in general. Studies have shown a clear link between higher rates of ICT use and lower rates of poverty. This is not necessarily a causal relationship, as the poor enjoy less access to ICT, but it suggests that ICT can be a powerful tool for income generation and empowerment. One World Bank study, for example, found a 10 percent increase in ICT penetration to be correlated with GDP gains of 1.2 to 1.38 percent. For mobile networks, the positive relationship between ICTs and economic growth is even more pronounced, with a 1 percent growth in mobile penetration in developing countries correlated with a 5 percent increase in GDP.
So how can innovation and ICT help African countries reverse the trajectory of agricultural production and help smallholder farmers realize their potential?
ICTs are already widely used in large-scale farms and the commercial sector, but their potential for small-scale farmers and associated groups has not been exploited. This is changing, though, as mobile technology spreads, offering opportunities for businesses and business associations, farmers and grower groups, researchers and trainers, governments, and NGOs. ICT can help improve productivity by providing information ranging from agricultural techniques to weather forecasts to commodity prices. It can also strengthen efficiency along the supply chain by facilitating transportation, monitoring logistics tracking, and improving the link between commodity exchanges, traders, buyers, and sellers.
One successful example of ICT in agribusiness supply chain tracking and monitoring is the Esoko Ghana Commodity Index, or EGCI, a rural communication platform that disseminates commodity price information to farmers over mobile phones. Every week, EGCI publishes a cash-market price index for physical commodities, tracking prices at the wholesale and retail levels. Access to real-time market information, including both pricing and demand, helps farmers to choose the most attractive market and negotiate with traders. Not only has it benefited smallholders, with early evaluations showing increases of 30 to 40 percent in income for those who use it, but it has also created new jobs in the ICT sector in Ghana and the nine other African countries it has expanded to since it launched in 2005.
Mobile technology is also helping to advance animal husbandry. Kenya-based iCow is a mobile application specifically targeted toward smallholder farmers raising dairy cows. Through iCow, farmers receive reminders on vital days of their cows’ pregnancies, allowing them to optimize milk collection. They can also get contact information for nearby veterinarians, maintain and update electronic records for their cows, and access tips on animal care. Early evaluations show that the program is producing positive results: 42 percent of farmers who joined in September 2010 reported increased incomes by January 2012, and 56 percent of those saw incomes rise due to increased milk yields ranging from 1.5 to 3 liters per lactating animal.
Despite these early achievements, however, ICT boasts few runaway successes. Several projects, created to address local problems, were built without commercial viability or sustainability in mind. As such, they remain sub-scale and in pilot mode. To harness the power of ICT innovations and achieve scale, we must acknowledge where innovation is needed, locate sufficient financing, and design solutions that can grow and be applied flexibly.
Exploiting ICT’s full potential for rural development is a discussion for all stakeholders, including investors, donors, developers, practitioners, regulators, and most importantly, farmers. It will sometimes require difficult tradeoffs between directing resources toward narrowly tailored solutions and toward the broader development of technology platforms. In this context, a long-term perspective will best help ICT deliver on its promise for agricultural development and poverty reduction in Africa.