[KIGALI] Technological innovations such as use of mobile phones to aid farming are unlikely to increase yields unless strong institutions exist, an academician says.

According to the FAO, a renewed focus on technological innovation is needed to promote sustainable agriculture. But some experts say that despite a big focus on technological innovation such as smartphone apps in agriculture, the expected returns are not enough.

“If smallholders in Africa are going to be empowered and really thrive as a business, innovation is not just going to happen in technology but also in institutions,” says Tom Jayne, a professor of food and resource economics at the US-based Michigan State University, citing institutions such as those that provide agricultural extension services.

Jayne adds that the strength of rural agricultural institutions, research and development, and the rate of farm technology advancements will influence African agriculture.

Challenges confronting farming in Africa include migration of youth from rural to urban settings and smallholders’ low adoption rates of conservation agriculture: a farming system that promotes maintenance of a permanent soil cover, minimum soil disturbance and diversification of plant species, Jayne explains

“Even though it is more commonly thought that Africa is a land-abundant region, there are many places in Africa where this is not feasible anymore,” he says.

For instance, in Kenya only 25 per cent of rural people inherit land.  “The fact that inheritance is declining as a mode of land [acquisition] is something that governments are going to have to anticipate and really deal with because there is much greater unemployment now than ever used to be,” Jayne explains.

A holistic way of dealing with these challenges will be to create opportunities that allow access to land for rural youth in less exorbitant prices to maintain livelihood in agriculture.

Governments need to invest in the right kind of innovative institutions that support small-scale farmers.

However, Onyeka Akumah, founder and chief executive officer of Nigeria-based Farmcrowdy, a digital agriculture platform that connects small-scale farmers with investors to boost food production in Nigeria, says technology in agriculture needs to improve yields as well as operations, adding that a focus has to be on broadening the impact of technology.

“There is a whole [set of] business that revolves around agriculture, whether it is logistics, warehousing, processing or exporting,” Akumah adds. “Now you can go on our mobile app or on our website and decide whether you want maize, rice or sorghum farmer or cassava farmer, make your decision and invest your money through the platform.”

Jayne and Akumah who spoke to SciDev.Net during the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Rwanda last month (4-8 September) are of the opinion that there is a need to think about innovation more broadly in Africa’s farming context if it is to yield more, alleviate poverty and improve lives and livelihoods.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.