Four ways technology can boost African farming

According to the recent eTransform Africa: TheTransformational Useof Information andCommunication Technologies inAfrica report by the World Bank and the African Development Bank, more than 650m mobile phone subscriptions give the majority of the population an invaluable source of access to financial services, information, games and entertainment.

It states that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can have the greatest impact in the agricultural industry – the largest economic sector in most countries on the continent. And it identifies four ways in which technology can benefit the African farming community:
1. Market information
One of the largest challenges traditionally experienced by Africa’s smallholder farmers has been a lack of transparent information about the market prices of crops. Two projects have addressed this situation in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The first is called Esoko, developed by Ghana-based BusyLab, which gives smallholder farmers in the 16 countries listed above access to a package of weekly advisory services consisting of current market prices, matching bids and offers, weather forecasts, as well as news and tips via their mobile phones. In some countries, advisories may also be sent by voice messages, and a live call centre of agricultural experts is available to complement data alerts with voice support.
BusyLab says not only can farmers negotiate better prices, choose different markets, or time sales better, but they may also participate in outgrower schemes through Esoko profiling and reputational history. “Our goal is simply to put more money into the hands of smallholder farmers, and try to address the information asymmetry that exists where farmers are frequently disadvantaged price-takers, often selling at a loss. After receiving better information, we estimate farmer income improvements to be
between 10% and 30%.”
Esoko’s three other key services include:
• Direct SMS marketing: businesses can target specific groups of users and target procurement or extension messages to reduce their travel and communication costs.
• Scout polling: enterprises can set up automatic SMS polling for field activities to track inventories and crop activities. This allows them to monitor and report on crop cycles and yields.
• Online profiling and marketing: any user or business can get a customisable web space to advertise its goods and services. This space can be updated using Esoko’s mobile-to-web content management service.
According to the report, the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) offers a similar SMS-based information service – but only in Zambia. It allows smallholder farmers to compare current prices of livestock commodities (beef, goats, pigs and sheep) and crop commodities (beans, cassava, ground nuts, honey, maize, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower and wheat) in their districts, provinces or nationwide, so that they can make the best decision on where to sell their output – giving them commercial power that they did not have previously.
How it works
Farmers simply send an SMS message containing the first four letters of the commodity name to 4455. Within 30 seconds, they receive a text message with the best prices by buyer, using abbreviated buyers’ codes. After selecting the best buyer, farmers can send a second SMS message with the abbreviated buyer’s code. A text message is sent back with the contact name and phone number of the buyer, the full name and address of the company and simple directions for reaching both. Farmers are then able to phone the contact and start trading. Each SMS message costs $0.15.
Internet and other support
More comprehensive information is also available via a website,, for those who have internet access. ZNFU says this spurs competition among
traders and processors, who keep a close eye on the website to see how their competitors’ prices are moving.
So far, it has recorded over 1,000 hits per week on the system and has had over 130 traders updating their prices on a weekly basis. ZNFU estimates that more than 15% of SMS messages directly lead to farmers selling their outputs.
To make information available to farmers without mobile phones and in areas lacking network coverage, ZNFU trains at least one farmer in every district to act as a contact farmer. This farmer is responsible for publishing the commodity price and trader information – received via SMS or from the website – and gives it to extension officers. Extension officers then display the weekly prices and details of interested traders on posters in local information centres.
E-transport system
The ZNFU has also launched an e-Transport system, a web-based interactive information system, which allows transport users to publicise availability of loads or cargo to a known destination and at preferred times of delivery to transporters. The system – operating at – allows registered transporters to inform
transport users of the availability of trucks on various routes.
2. Agricultural insurance
Although crop insurance has long been used in developed countries to address uncertain weather conditions, it has traditionally not been available to most
smallholders in Africa. Agricultural insurance is, however, increasingly important as the extreme weather patterns generated by climate change are introducing greater-than-ever volatility to African food production and food prices.
One example of how ICT is being used to provide better access to crop insurance for smallholders is the Kilimo Salama (Safe Agriculture) project in Kenya. Kilimo Salama enables smallholders to insure their agricultural inputs against adverse weather conditions, such as drought or too much rain. Farmers can insure as little as 1kg of maize, seed or fertiliser by simply paying a small amount extra on top of the price for each bag of inputs.
Mobile technology plays a central role in this scheme as it is used both for registration of new policies as well as for payouts. Kilimo Salama is distributed mostly through agro dealers that have been equipped with a camera phone which scans a special bar code at the time of purchase, immediately registering the policy with UAP Insurance over Safaricom’s mobile data network. This innovative application then sends an SMS message confirming the insurance policy to the farmer’s handset.
Payouts are determined by automated weather stations that monitor rainfall. Based on the stations’ measurements and a predefined formula of crop rainfall needs, payouts are automatically made to farmers using Safaricom’s mobile money transfer service M-PESA. This means that farmers don’t have to fill out any claim forms.
It is expected that products like Kilimo Salama will increase productivity, since only about half of Kenyan farmers invest in improved seeds and soil inputs. A key
reason for the low demand is the fear among farmers that poor conditions, such as drought, will render their investment worthless, robbing them of both their crops and their savings.
3. Irrigation efficiency
The report notes that efficient irrigation practices provide five main benefits: a consistent moisture supply to crops, help to overcome water deficiencies during periods of drought, certainty that more than one crop cycle per year can be achieved, dramatically improve the effective use of all production resources, and alleviate the pressure on diminishing water resources – allowing more land to be put under irrigation.
It highlights two projects from Egypt as examples of the successful use of ICT to improve irrigation. The first one is the government-backed Irrigation Improvement and Management Project – implemented on 500,000 acres of the Nile Delta – to increase the efficiency of irrigated agricultural water use and services. According to the report, involving farmers in the management of the pumping and water control systems means that water gets to the right field at the right time, thus boosting crop yields by
12-25% and farmers’ incomes by 20-64%.
As an extension of this project, the World Bank is loaning $100m to Egypt to support its farm-level irrigation modernisation project, which aims to improve access to higher-quality water for around 140,000 small-scale farmers on 84,000ha in the Nile Delta areas of Mahmoudia, Manaifa and Meet Yazid.
The project involves building ditches, improving branch canals and tertiary channels that receive water from branch canals, and enhancing the knowledge of
The second example is the Magrabi Farms area that has been developed from desert to the 8,500 acres that are now fully irrigated. The area exports produce to 38 countries. It is completely independent in terms of being able to conduct all the functionalities required for good soil, water and multi-cropping management. The complex’s fully equipped laboratories form part of an integrated quality control programme, and its fully-integrated irrigation system is managed by an irrigation engineer. He is assisted by an on-site weather station that monitors temperature and evaporation pans to determine moisture loss. The weather station is used in conjunction with tensiometers to facilitate the correct irrigation scheduling.
The report emphasizes that the capital and operational costs involved in the roll-out of ICT-based irrigation systems are often lower than the expected benefits.
4. Traceability
Developed countries increasingly demand that food is tracked from the farm all the way to the supermarket. The report identifies the driving forces and advantages behind any traceability programme as a deterrent against stock theft; improved farm management practices; early prevention, control and isolation of animal diseases; proof of
ownership in subsidy payment schemes; performance recording; and trade opportunities in terms of the export of animal products to markets for higher prices (subject to certification).
One successful example of how ICT has been implemented to boost traceability is the Namibian Livestock Identification and Traceability System (NamLITS), in which animal identification is done through both radio frequency identification for automated data input, and a visual plastic ear tag that supports production in more rural areas.
According to the report, the system has unlocked wealth along the entire livestock value chain because its implementation was very structured and covered the system design, legislative framework, governance, operational responsibilities, stakeholder management and outreach, implementation timetable and resources required, as well as monitoring and evaluation and research and development.
The NamLITS database interfaces with abattoir and auctioneering information systems, the Stock Brands Register and the Central Ear Tag ID allocation system. In addition, the system will link registered establishments where animals are kept with identification data. This will enable Directorate of Veterinary Services officials to have access to reliable information in the event of disease outbreaks and to trace back the origin of a diseased animal as well as possible contact with other animals.
The NamLITS Northern Communal Areas database and network infrastructure – completed in 2012 – has introduced additional interfaces with other databases, ensuring that the database offers a good source of standardised static data on establishments, keepers, and herd and flock identification codes. This was achieved by using the same fundamental epidemiological information regarding livestock, establishments, keepers and animal events.
The report identifies Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia as well-suited for the replication of such a livestock traceability system. It adds that Sudan has very large herds of cattle – which are reputed to be disease-free – and already exports beef to Egypt. But it says the country cannot expand its exports to Europe without the ICT infrastructure, legislation and regulatory provisions in place.
The report authors therefore recommend that the adoption of livestock traceability standards be introduced in phases, with private partners serving as the first phase; expanding the system to regular suppliers of feedlots in the second phase; and incorporating transporters and auctioneers in a further phase.
You can download the 116 page (2.57MB pdf) eTransform Africa: Agriculture Sector Study from