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Empowering farmers to farm smarter in Africa

COP27 may take place this year against a different news background this year given the conflict in the Ukraine and the fuel crisis in Europe, but the agenda has not changed. With global temperatures rising to record-breaking levels, the need for meaningful progress at this year’s UN climate conference has never been greater.

Across Africa, the accelerating climate emergency is jeopardising food security, driving more people into hunger and starvation. As the Horn of Africa continues to battle a four-year long drought, one person dies of hunger every 36 seconds. Although the African continent contributes the least to climate change, it will be disproportionately affected by the effects. By 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that around 346.4 million Africans suffered from severe food insecurity, while an additional 452 million endured moderate food insecurity. Yet, by 2050, the population of Africa is expected to double in size. At this point, the continent is likely to be unable to sustain food production for its own people, let alone export for profit.

A recent survey, conducted by Savanta Comres and commissioned by Vodafone, estimates that 94% of farmers in Africa surveyed across Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Egypt said that recent droughts had impacted the viability of their farm. In Egypt and Kenya, this figure rose to almost 100%.

Despite these challenges, the survey found that pockets of farmers in Africa were optimistic about the future. To a large extent, this optimism is rooted in the potential offered by digital farming technology. From reducing the use of fertiliser to increasing profit margins, technology can play a central role in boosting the resilience, productivity, and sustainability of our food systems.

Many of these farmers said that digital technology could help farming succeed in the future and they intended to invest more. The research also found that some of these farmers are already employing digital tools to help reduce their water usage and to improve soil health among other uses.

This kind of technology adoption is key to both economic development and the mitigation of climate change for farmers in Africa. Connected Farmer (developed by Mezzanine, a tech start-up, with the support and scale offered by Vodacom) serves as a prime example of this. The digital platform allows small-holder farmers to engage with a broader customer base, seek advice, access important information and even secure credit.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Vodacom’s Women Farmers Programme is making agriculture more accessible and profitable for women by teaching them how to use apps to connect to potential customers and unlock enormous economic opportunity.

In Kenya, DigiFarm leverages mobile and digital technology to offer farmers one-stop access to a suite of products, including financial and credit services, quality farm products and customised information on farming best practices, all from the most basic phone. Vodacom Tanzania’s M-Kulima platform provides a digital marketplace where farmers can list their produce; enabling them to connect directly with buyers without any need for an intermediary. And in Egypt, the venue for this year’s iteration of COP27, Vodafone is empowering local communities through agricultural guidance services via mobile.

However, despite the clear benefits of technology in Africa’s farming sector – and farmers’ enthusiasm for it – they face significant barriers. The cost and availability of devices, poor mobile coverage or fixed connectivity, and the lack of digital skills impede adoption. Farmers in Africa want help and support from the government. However, it’s not just about money. Farmers in Africa are also calling for training on how to use digital solutions, better mobile connectivity and better fixed Internet connectivity.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that farmers in Africa are supported to adopt digital technology. How can we go about it?

We need to ensure access to digital devices and smartphones to drive innovative, resilient, and climate-proof farming in Africa. In 2022, over 2.3 million of Vodacom’s low-cost smart feature phones were sold – testament to the demand and need for more affordable handsets. With this in mind, policymakers should consider reducing or removing import duties and taxes to accelerate smartphone adoption in Africa which would support economic inclusion of many including farming communities.

At the same time, policy and regulatory reforms must incentivise investment in critical digital infrastructure to ensure that farmers receive the connectivity they so desperately need. Governments should also prioritise reliable network coverage and ubiquitous digital infrastructure to allow for efficient data transmission.

Finally, we must transform restrictive regulatory policies and practices around digital, cloud and data services. These hamper the growth of Africa’s digital economy. By creating an enabling regulatory environment that supports the secure flow of data between countries through innovations like cloud computing, farmers will have the opportunity to access the critical agricultural insights they need to farm more effectively.

The war in the Ukraine and disruption caused by COVID-19 have exacerbated an already dire food security picture. But the underlying and long-term threat remains climate change. It is critical that we get technology in the hands of farmers in Africa to ensure they are well placed to face this existential thread. A coherent policy platform implemented by governments and industry can help farmers adopt this and create an innovative, climate-proof farming sector in Africa. If we do that, we can help ensure long term food security across the African continent.