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Scaling technology for the transformation of African agriculture – The Open Secret Part 3

Background photo - Packing quick-cooking beans in Kenya, Photo Credit - CIAT

In his 2015 annual letter, Bill Gates made a bet that with appropriate use of technology Africa would be able to feed itself by 2030. In addition Bill’s letter highlights that:

“improving agriculture, (in Africa) can drive massive poverty reduction and improve life across the continent”

Technology has provided a reasonably high number of surprises over the past decades and it is evident that technology can evolve at rates that surpass our assumptions of the extent to which it can influence production processes and productivity. Currently there are many pathways for through which technology could contribute to the transformation of African agriculture. For instance crop and livestock varieties bred for specific productivity, resilience and nutrition enhancing traits. The role of ICTs has also received increasing attention over the years and has evolved from facilitating the sending and receiving of production or market information to remote sensing, mapping and real time crop monitoring and field analysis.

All these are technological options that are becoming available for transforming African agriculture but the main question is, how to scale them for impact. ICT4ag (ICT for agriculture) has become a buzz word over the past decade and its evolution presents some important lessons on scaling technology for transformation. One of Africa’s most successful ICT4ag start-ups was co-founded by Gerald Otim and David Opio, FinTech entrepreneurs and is named Ensibuuko. It is an ICT driven solution that enables saving and credit associations (and other financing organisations) to handle savings and make loans to smallholder farmers. While most ICT4ag innovations have either found their footing but struggled to gain traction or fail to take off at, Ensibuuko’s third party software is now being used in over 50 organisations and reaching hundreds of thousands of clients.

It is more important first to scale out before scaling up

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) instituted a bold investigation into the reasons why many ICT4ag innovations have failed to scale. An excerpt from the report reads:

“There is often a tendency to want to provide all the information and assistance that farmers could possibly need. This can lead to complex, costly, unworkable and unsustainable designs… A better approach is to start by providing limited information to address a core problem, with the intention to upgrade and scale-up services if the pilot is successful.”

One of the keys to effective scaling is understanding that it is more important first to “scale out”, i.e. ensuring a wide reach before “scaling up”, i.e. integrating a wider range of services or offerings. While this lesson is derived from an evaluation of ICT4ag innovations, it applies to many other forms of technological innovation, be it crop variety development or agricultural equipment and farm machinery technology.

The proliferation of mobile money services across the African continent is another phenomenon demonstrating the secret behind effective scaling. As of June 2012, about 70% of mobile money users were in Africa. This scenario was a reflection of how mobile money services as an innovation addressed core financial service needs of the financially under-served population. The success of mobile money growth was also supported by enabling ICT and financial services policies across the continent. The major financial service need of most financially excluded Africans was initially transactional. Mobile money services closed this gap through relatively affordable and accessible technology and agents. As the innovation first scaled out, competition among service providers resulted in a scaling up of services offered. For instance, Zimbabwe’s Ecocash evolved to incorporate other services such as diaspora cash transfers, savings, loans and other banking services. Scale out, then scale up!

The role of government and the private sector

With regards to ICTs the policy environment has been considered enabling for the expansion of the use of ICT products and services. However, in some countries, such as Zimbabwe more is still expected in terms of ICT policy and regulation to further lower the costs of accessing ICT-enabled services to wider reach of some of the modern day’s basic ICT services. Further, there are still significant policy gaps not only in Zimbabwe, but also in other African countries on key technological issues that include, but are not limited to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in agriculture as well as crop and animal variety/breed development and management. While almost all technologies have their pros and cons, a participatory approach to developing a well-rounded technology policy will ensure a sustainable approach to technology development and promotion. An enabling policy environment is paramount for scaling out and subsequent scaling up.

It is important to note that delayed policy action has far-reaching implications when it comes to technology. The opportunities that technological evolution are providing for agriculture and food production are not only at the disposal of African. Developed countries are already making strides to utilize technology to meet increasing world food demands. A few days ago I came across the work of Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk (younger brother of SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk). Aged 45 and 44 respectively, the two are not very young, but they are young at heart. Peggs and Musk co-founded the start-up Square Roots which coaches and equips aspiring urban farmers on how to cultivate leafy vegetables in purple-lit shipping containers in a parking lot.

Not only is decisive action required from African governments, but also from the private sector. In developed countries, large companies are investing in start-ups whose success has potential to revolutionize their ways of doing business and hence their earning capacity. A recent example is the USAA’s investment in start-up ID.me. ID.me Inc. is a Harvard Business School project that turned into a cyber-identity verification start up. ID.me is developing a technology that could help banks remotely verify the identities of their customers. In light of this the USAA, a financial services firm with an estimated revenue (TTM) of US$8.2 billion has invested in the start-up as it could potentially use the start-up’s technology to verify the identity of its own customers.

Rounding up

After sharing my last article, someone asked me about the role of youth in repositioning of African agriculture for next century opportunities. I believe youth are a crucial part of this re-positioning as they make up not only the majority of the population in Africa, but also the majority of the labour force and potential source of most innovation. Without deliberate action from individuals, government and the private sector to support youth in agriculture or supporting youth skills development, what seems to be our only opportunity could be a lost opportunity. A youth-led web TV service, dubbed Agribusiness TV is working hard to maximize on the potential of youths by boosting the technical knowledge of aspiring young farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs as well as making more youths interested in agriculture. Not all young Africans have to be producers, some have to be entrepreneurs and innovators that include processors, engineers of various trades who can identify value-creation opportunities along the agricultural value chain.

But without attracting adequate public and private investment progress will be difficult to achieve. Join me in the next article as I discuss more on ‘Targeted investment for agricultural transformation in Africa’.

First published on my LinkedIn Page

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