Advancing digital strategies at country level

AGRF 2020

Thursday 5th, 2019

The transformative power of digital solutions is well established. But the development, use and scale-up of digital solutions for agriculture depends on an enabling environment. Progressive digital strategies for agriculture require individual and collective action by government and the private sector, from small start-ups to large companies, as well as key agriculture value chain actors in rural and urban areas.

In 2016, ITU, FAO and CTA issued a guide for developing e-agriculture strategies at national and regional levels. Since then, with the recognition that data is the foundation for digital solutions and services, there have been increasing calls for strategies to manage data, including farmer data.

And with new knowledge products being commissioned to explore this subject, governments and tech leaders are now coming together to drive action and engagement. 

To kick off this plenary session, Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director, African Women in Agricultural Research (AWARD) and Member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel, considered the      preconditions for creating an enabling digitalization environment. The key elements, she said, are regulation, financing and digital skills development. R&D is also key, along with having the right digital infrastructure, innovation hubs and the capacity for South-South cooperation. 

Establishing these preconditions is essential, said Dr Kamau-Rutenberg, because as a continent Africa does not have time for gradual change. “We need rapid transformative change,” she said, citing the well-known maxim, “we must run where others walk”. 

The creation of an enabling environment also requires governments to address key limitations and risks. According to Dr Kamau-Rutenberg, the limitations currently constraining digitalization in agriculture are linked to accessibility, with last mile infrastructure and digital literacy being key issues, along with the prohibitive cost of connections and handsets, and inaccurate and unsuitable information. 

And in terms of risks, privacy protection, intellectual property and the automation of jobs are key concerns. 

“We have to address these issues,” said Dr Kamau-Rutenberg, who also warned that governments must ensure that digital innovations do not exacerbate gender inequality in Africa. As digital strategies are advanced, she said, it’s essential that new digital solutions and services are designed to include and empower women. 

According to Dr Parmesh Shah, Global Lead for Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural Jobs at the World Bank, investment in data is key to increasing the number of scalable digital solutions in Africa. 

“We need more incubators and accelerators,” said Dr Shah, “to ensure we have people who are idea-ready, enterprise-ready and business-ready. We don’t yet have the ecosystems we need to establish large pipelines of scalable solutions.”

To this end, Dr Shah also urged for further investment in higher education institutions and advised that multinational and African solutions come together to drive meaningful progress in the field. 

But just what is happening in the field? During the session, panellists cited a range of strategy developments and initiatives that are helping to advance digitalization. In Ghana, inclusive production, development and delivery of digital services is driving progress. In Kenya, the vigorous promotion of the Fintech and Agtech sector is having a similar impact, while in Morocco, institutional and infrastructure innovation is enabling reach and scale. And in Nigeria, local manufacture, capacity and content are the key focus areas. 

Leveraging lessons from these and other countries will help to catalyse action elsewhere to create enabling environments for digitalization. Rwanda, for example, offers excellent models and examples of progress. According to Rt. Hon. Edouard Ngirente, the Prime Minister of Rwanda, ambitious targets are key for stimulating engagement. “In Rwanda,” he said, “we aim to achieve universal digital literacy for children by 2024.” 

In this way, the Rwandan government is looking to enable all its citizens to use ICT and digital tools in their daily lives. Such efforts, enhanced by extended fibreoptic reach and high mobile phone penetration (78.4%), mean Rwanda now leads the way in Africa in the digitalization of agriculture.

These success stories have certainly caught the imagination of the global tech giants. According to Moustapha Cisse, Staff Research Scientist and Lead at Google, “researchers on our team are currently working on AI and machine learning for agriculture to advance things like crop disease diagnosis.” 

Asked why a company like Google is getting involved in this area, Cisse said: “Behind companies you have human beings, and human beings have stories. I’m the first in my family to go to school, let alone university.” 

Motivated to make positive difference, Cisse concluded: “What we’re doing is trying to find digital solutions to the challenges human face. And at Google we have the freedom to advance machine intelligence to improve people’s lives.” 

Which can only be good news for those looking to advance digital innovation in agriculture in Africa.