Pause: Release of special report: “African farmers in the digital age.”

Pause: Release of special report: “African farmers in the digital age.”

__Soon it will be Africa’s turn to help feed the world…

This week an American journal called Foreign Affairs has released an excellent collection of essays entitled: “African Farmers in the Digital Age: how digital solutions can enable rural development.”

In this new report, 20 African and global experts discuss ways to transform African agriculture, with a focus on food systems and rural smallholder farmers. A quick summary of a few priorities to speed up change:

# Rethink agricultural policies;
# Expand access to digital technology (to help smallholder farmers carry out business transactions like banking, networking and sourcing info on inputs, innovations, pricing, markets, training, etc.); and
# Improve collaboration and information sharing.

__Most important of all is… wider access to valuable information, which is why I’m telling you about this new report right away!

The report is 141 pages long so I’ll share just one excerpt written by Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) which first appeared in this special edition (February 2016):

“. . .Right now, hundreds of millions of Africans rely on farming for a living, but they don’t grow as much—and they don’t sell as much of their surplus—as they could. As a result, Africa had to import $40 billion worth of food last year. Something is not functioning properly when half of the continent’s labor produces food, and the continent still buys its food from somewhere else!

So what is going wrong? Why aren’t African smallholders tapping into that $40 billion market? The main problem stems from the fact that agricultural markets, like banks, exist on a formal plane, whereas smallholders exist on an informal one. So farmers and markets cannot communicate effectively. Smallholders don’t know what the market will pay. They can’t grow crops according to the market’s specifications because they don’t know the specifications. They have no way to learn the farm-management practices that would let them double or even triple their yields. Instead, they grow mostly what they can eat or trade locally, the way they’ve always grown it.

As long as this information disconnect exists, there will be a related physical disconnect. The rails and roads that would take crops from the farm gate to the market don’t exist, because the market doesn’t want the crops the farmers are growing in the ways and volumes they’re growing them. So farmers are isolated, stuck with no money and no voice that the marketplace can hear.

But digital technology can act almost like a secret decoder ring that links the formal and informal sectors. Smallholders are already using mobile phones to communicate within their networks, to talk to family and friends. The institutions that make up the formal marketplace communicate in much the same way. So it is now possible to generate a two-way conversation between Africa’s producers and Africa’s consumers—and this is an entirely new conversation. Each party will be able to express its needs to the other for the first time ever.

Imagine a smallholder farmer who can discover, easily, that yams are expected to fetch a high price this year. She can also contact a local cooperative to combine her yams with those of her neighbor, satisfying the buyers’ volume requirements. Because she is assured of sale at harvest, she can afford to take out a loan, using her phone, to buy fertilizer or better storage or whatever else she needs to maximize her yield. In the meantime, instead of waiting for a visit from an extension worker who may or may not know about yams and the soil in this particular region, she can get advice tailored by crop and soil type via digital video or text.

When information can flow easily, when data is democratized, the cost of doing business in agriculture goes way down, just as transaction costs go way down when financial transactions are digital. The excessive time and money farmers, agribusinesses, and cooperatives spend managing the risk of doing business with unknown partners is a drag on efficiency. When these partners can know each other easily—can function as nodes in a single marketplace—agriculture will thrive.

It’s not as easy as the above paragraphs may make it seem. Building a digital agriculture system that actually accomplishes these goals will take innovation and investment. But the point is that before it wasn’t possible, and now it is. The added variable of digital technology has changed the
agricultural development equation. . .”

You can view and download (free of charge) the full Foreign Affairs special edition on agriculture here:


Author:Strive Masiyiwa

Strive Masiyiwa is the Founder and Executive Chairman of Econet, a diversified global telecommunications group with operations and investments in over 15 countries. His business interests also include renewable energy, financial services, media and hospitality. Masiyiwa serves on a number of international boards, including Unilever, Rockefeller Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Advisory Board, the Africa Progress Panel, the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board for Sustainable Energy, Morehouse College, Hilton Foundation's Humanitarian Prize Jury and the Kenjin-Tatsujin International Advisory Council. He is one of the founders, with Sir Richard Branson, of the global think tank, the Carbon War Room, and a founding member of the Global Business Coalition on Education. Masiyiwa took over the Chairmanship of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) from Kofi Annan. He is also Chair of the Micronutrient Initiative, a global organization focused on ending child hunger and improving nutrition. In 2012, Masiyiwa was invited by President Obama to address leaders at the Camp David G-8 Summit on how to increase food production and end hunger in parts of Africa. In 2014, Masiyiwa was selected to Fortune Magazine’s list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders”. As a philanthropist, he is a member of the Giving Pledge, and his contributions to education, health and development have been widely recognized. Masiyiwa and his wife finance the Higher Life Foundation, which provides scholarships to over 42,000 African orphans. In 2015, he was the recipient of the International Rescue Committee’s Freedom Award and was presented with a UN Foundation Global Leadership Award for the work of the Africa Against Ebola Solidarity Trust, which he chairs and helped establish to fund the deployment of African healthcare workers to combat the outbreak in West Africa.

13 Replies to “Pause: Release of special report: “African farmers in the digital age.””

  1. Afterthought 1. My good friend Sam Dryden (former head of the Agriculture program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) was the key person spearheading this anthology. He spent his early years on a subsistence farm in Appalachia in the American state of Kentucky. As a boy, Sam had firsthand experience with farming and how much life can be transformed by technology. He figured this out early when a rural cooperative finally hooked up electricity to their family smallholding back in the day… (And then there was light!) Over the years, much of his career has focused on helping poor families try to grow food more successfully via technological innovations: “We begin by… humbly listening to farmers and their families, learning and respecting their cultures, ways of living, and knowledge of place and home.”

  2. Afterthought 2. “The new African food system should be built around the idea that agriculture is about more than producing calories; it is about changing society. Its five components should be valuing the smallholder farmer, empowering women, focusing on the quality as well as the quantity of food, creating a thriving rural economy, and protecting the environment,” write Kofi Annan and Sam Dryden in the preface. We must dare to think big and change our mindset. Soon it will be AFRICA’s turn to help feed the world!

  3. Thanks for the enlightenment, is there anyway this loan service can be extended to Nigeria?
    I want to start a fish farm but the finance is not there, so if this loan can be extended i’ll be glad.
    Thanks sir.

  4. Dear Sir, I couldn’t agree with you more on this. The challenge however is Africa’s young population shy away from agriculture thus leaving our older folks to till the land. Young Africans are seeking employment, other businesses alas they even resort to selling airtime become night watch guards instead of agriculture. We forget that America,Russia, Australia Europe is what it is today because of agriculture. A family that cannot feed itself cannot have the luxury of buying luxuries. that is the case here. We need a great awakening to reignite the torch torwards sustainable food production in Africa

  5. Mr Masiyiwa, apologies to divert from the core subject on this article…have you ever imagined a world where you could walk into a store and instead of paying using cash or card you swipe your finger and the magic happens?
    Imagine the possibility of accessing services by WHO you are rather than WHAT(card, cellphone) you have or KNOW(pin or password).
    I have a proof of concept using well established biometric technology to make that world a possibility, I however pray for a giant on whose shoulders I can stand on in order to change the world particularly the illiterate masses in Africa and Asia.

  6. If Africa’s food import can be valued at $40b in last year, with the potential to grow due to population increase among others, the question in the mind of Africans should be how to take a share in this market. how to connect the needs of Africa’s consumers to gear up the Africa’s producers outputs?

  7. This is a good analysis of the current situation in Agricultural sector in many countries in Africa. Digital platform will and should play a role, but at the end of the day, the transformation of Agriculture in Africa will come from Government leadership, policy and investment.

  8. Just hoping that my grandmother recovers as she is hospitalised. There is nothing for our old ones not even a cent from government. They do zero tillage till they are weak and sometimes they force themselves into the fields of hard labour even when they are in physical pain just for food. It is a very cold world out here.

  9. Everything about this issue is so good and sensible,yet youngsters in Zimbabwe are just wailing around in town doing nothing.Maybe it is good for them to be chased out of town for them to go and start farming

  10. Sir thank you for enlighting us, are loans available here in Zimbabwe so that us young farmers like me can be helped because i want Africa to be the bread basket that’s my vision

  11. Thanks sir women shld be empowered . I agree with yu that very soon Africa will sponser food to the hole Nation . We have to stand together for a better tommorow and for a better Africa

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