By Dr. Mel Oluoch, the Director for Strategic Partnerships at the Sasakawa Africa Association
In Uganda today, farmers can get immediate professional advice by sending photos to extension personnel and agronomists through the popular m-Omulimisa and Ezy Agric digital applications. The two platforms also allow farmers to get climate updates, to report and receive alerts on pests and disease outbreaks, to access inputs, markets and financial services, and to communicate with their peers around the country.
Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA), in partnership with technology companies and research institutes, are supporting the government’s efforts towards efficient agricultural extension delivery and has trained extension personnel and farmers on how to use the digital E-Extension platforms, in order for them to teach and support others. This became more imperative during the COVID-19 pandemic when supply chain and transport disruptions brought about production challenges, and the digital E-extension technologies enabled farmers to keep engaging in farming activities. Meanwhile in Nigeria, SAA in partnership with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is scaling up gender-responsive digital agricultural advisory services tools which is enabled through a WhatsApp chatbot. These applications, which are used by farmers and extension agents, integrate fertilizer recommendations with relevant agronomic advisories, while also expanding extension outreach. The decision-based tools for maize (Nutrient Expert), cassava (AKILIMO), and rice (RiceAdvice) also provides advice on investment prioritization between the three crops. On the other hand, in Ethiopia farmers get information about agronomic management through a Video-mediated extension learning. This is used to train farmers and accelerate extension services by screening practice videos. In addition, a bidirectional digital platform is also being used that allows information exchange with extension experts.
There are numerous other examples of digital extension platforms being used around Africa. This proves digital technology has come around to bridge the knowledge gap, that had hitherto left millions of the continents smallholder farming households struggling, to make meaning of their agricultural enterprises.
But we are just at the beginning of the digital revolution, where many still lack the access to the life-changing technologies that are transforming the lives of others elsewhere around the world. Indeed, while ICT infrastructure is developing rapidly across Africa, many farmers are unable to enjoy its full benefits due to poor network coverage and slow internet connectivity, limited access to smartphones and other gadgets needed for a beneficial interaction with internet-based networks, limited number of e-extension applications and tools, and a capacity development requirement for farmers and extension agents to use them. As a result, significant percentage of the continent’s farmers are left to rely on USSD/GSM services, which are often limited in terms of the diversity of information they carry and the level of interactivity.
To ensure that the full benefits of the digital transformation are experienced by agricultural communities across Africa, it is of great importance that governments realize the need for digital inclusion and dedicate adequate resources to deepening mobile and internet penetration. This realization will in many instances drive policy interventions and, thus, the need to involve stakeholders from across the board in designing the kind of policies that will provoke infrastructural development towards the remotest parts of the continent. Currently, many of the people in Africa’s rural areas are sidelined by inadequate infrastructure, with research showing that just less than 30% of the adults in rural areas have access to the internet; and that a majority of those who do, can only connect to mobile broadband at the sluggish 2G and 3G speeds.
The cost of internet access is also a limiting barrier, with many of the leading telecommunication service providers pricing their network bundles heftily. A gigabyte of data in Malawi, for example, costs USD 27.41, whilst in India it is USD 0.17 for a similar package. Policy interventions are, therefore, required to shield consumers from price exploitation, in such instances, allowing many of the marginalized rural farmers to engage with the internet, the reservoir of all human knowledge.
But we must remain aware that even the most affordable internet connection may not be useful if the targeted users lack the gadgets needed to connect to it. Smartphones in Africa are still unaffordable to the rural poor, many of whom resign to the use of the cheaper feature phones, which while bridging the communication connectivity gap, are inadequate in linking them to the powerful information systems that others in the developed world have access to. This is a challenge that can be addressed through public-private partnerships, which will both subsidize the costs of digital gadgets and promote other ownership initiative systems like pay-as-you-use models.
Meanwhile, different stakeholders including the private sector, non-state actors and governments must continue creating an inclusive and multi-dimensional agricultural extension platform, along the entire agricultural value-chain. This should be supplemented by practical digital tools (e.g., precision farming apps, mobile-based lending platforms, and market linkage networks, amongst others) and capacity building that can allow farmers to transform their enterprises. It must be understood that increased access to digital tools and platforms by farmers, equals to more opportunities for access to information and decision-making processes. In result, this will quickly transform Africa’s food systems for increased food and nutrition security and poverty reduction. Digital platforms can help reduce the cost of extension delivery at farm level and at learning institutions. Strengthening E-extension and e-learning in Africa has promoted access to information and services and reduced extension-farmer ratio for more effective advisory service delivery.