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Laying Foundation for Digital Revolution in Africa’s Food Systems

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By Douglas Okwatch

This report is a slightly modified version of the original published in the January 2024 issue of Africa Renewal.

NAIROBI | 3 February 2024 (IDN) — Digital technologies will be vital in addressing the three persistent problems in Africa’s agricultural industry—inefficiency, exclusivity, and unsustainability, according to the 2023 Africa Agriculture Status Report, “Empowering Africa’s Food Systems for the Future”.

The report is by AGRA (Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa–an Africa-led organisation that seeks to catalyze agriculture transformation on the continent through innovation.

There is already evidence that Africa’s agriculture is on the way to becoming more efficient, inclusive and sustainable, the report observes.

But, in spite of the technological gains, food insecurity is worsening in Africa as chronic undernourishment increases and numerous countries face acute food shortages triggered by a combination of factors, including the Ukraine crisis and climate change.

The report aptly captures this situation. In 2022, for instance, the prevalence of under-nutrition in Africa was 19.7 per cent, a slight increase from 2021, the report shows.

In 2022, the prevalence of hunger also rose across Africa, with hunger increasing from 22.2 per cent to 22.5 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, which translates into 9 million more people experiencing hunger compared to 2021, adds the report.

Citing the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Global Network Against Food Crises (GNAF), Market Data Insight for Actionable Strategy (FSIN), and Oxfam International, the report says the prevalence of under-nutrition in North Africa rose from 6.9 per cent to 7.5 per cent with nearly 2 million more people facing hunger in 2022.

It notes that the nature of food systems in the region is characterized by underdeveloped markets and driven primarily by smallholder farmers who operate on small and fragmented farms.

How can this be?

Experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPR) pointed to underdeveloped markets and the struggles of “smallholder farmers who operate on small and fragmented farms.”

The good news is these experts already see evidence of digitalization’s positive impact on African agribusinesses’ efficiency, inclusiveness and sustainability.

The launch of this report before some 5,400 delegates from over 90 countries gathered for the 2023 Africa Food Systems Forum, themed “Recover, Regenerate, Act” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, offered some hope to Africa.

It took place against extreme weather events, recurring crop disease, inadequate infrastructure and policies, risk-averse investors and ongoing conflicts, which have disrupted food and energy markets.

Forum participants acknowledged the continent’s current status, but they refused to accept it as the status quo.

Instead, they resolved to “harness Africa’s potential” by engaging youth in sustainable food production, adopting regenerative farming methods at local levels, collaborating across borders, sharing good practices and pooling resources to lift smallholder farmers.

They also agreed to improve soil health, grow more nutritious crops, and include women and marginalized communities in all these efforts.

To support all these, countries must pursue innovative financing strategies and embrace “digital technologies, e-commerce and innovative market platforms.”

Digitalization supports larger goals and aspirations

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its report, Going Digital: Shaping Policies, Improving Lives, defines digitalization as “the use of digital technologies and data as well as interconnection that results in new or changes to existing activities” in, say, food systems.

Digital technologies and related products and services can transform production, management, and governance systems.

By “going digital,” Africa can align its food systems with SDG 2: Zero Hunger, to achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Digitalization also resonates with the African Union Agenda 2063, which aspires to “a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development … underpinned by science, technology and innovation,” with “healthy and well-nourished citizens” and “modern agriculture for increased proactivity and production.”

Electricity to power agricultural change

The continent requires cheap, adequate and reliable energy to power digital transformation. Africa’s energy paradox—scarcity amid plenty—poses a different challenge to digitalizing its food systems.

In its African Economic Outlook 2022, the African Development Bank reported that to deliver electricity to the nearly 1.3 billion Africans, some 645 million of which are off the grid, the continent needs investments of $32–$40 billion annually in the energy value chain.

Without universal access to electricity, the rollout of digital agricultural innovations across Africa has been uneven. Even so, many countries are making progress.

In the 2023 Africa Agriculture Status Report, the IFPR experts pointed out some success stories where smallholder farmers already accessed real-time pricing information, conducted secure financial transactions and linked to other members of their value chain. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo source: Africa Renewal





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