Agriculture is the lifeblood of Sub-Saharan Africa, with approximately 60% of the population engaged in this sector. When we take into account a recent study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, the figures become even more intriguing. The research estimates that there are approximately 450 to 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide. Many of them are located in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, collectively constituting 90 per cent of the farmer population in these regions and contributing to 80 per cent of the food production on the African continent.
Despite this, smallholder farmers in the region often grapple with a myriad of challenges, including but not limited to unpredictable weather patterns, pests, diseases, market access issues, and limited financial resources.
Mwahio, a dairy farmer in Ndaragua, knows all these challenges too well. “I know I’ll have more milk if I feed my cow more. But whenever I request more input, I don’t get any, as my co-operative thinks I won’t be able to repay,” she laments. Her counterpart from Laikipia is interested in knowing what to feed her cows so that she can get more milk. “If only I knew what to feed my cow each passing day, I am sure I could have more milk.”
According to Sieka Gatabaki, Programme Director for Mercy Corps AgriFin, these challenges make it imperative to explore innovative solutions that can help transform agriculture and uplift the livelihoods of these farmers. “One such solution, gaining increasing attention, is the utilisation of digital technology to empower smallholder farmers in Africa,” he says, adding, “At the core of the AgriFin programme is the utilisation of digital technology to catalyse positive change in the agricultural sector. This approach is supported by years of research and successful implementations.”
The crucial role of digital technology in agricultural development is evident from recent research by Mercy Corps AgriFin and partner organisations. The studies illustrate that digital solutions have a profound impact on smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as access to financial services, which is a crucial component of enhancing the agricultural landscape in Africa. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies consistently highlights the pivotal role played by digital financial services in significantly improving smallholder farmers’ access to credit and loans.
“This positive transformation is achieved by leveraging alternative data to assess creditworthiness, effectively eliminating the traditional collateral and complex paperwork requirements. As a result, access to finance is emerging as a critical driver for agricultural growth in the region,” Sieka offers.
Moreover, information services provided through digital platforms such as DigiFarm are filling a significant gap in regions where agricultural extension services are limited or unavailable. These platforms offer farmers essential information, including real-time weather forecasts, valuable market insights, and expert advice on agronomic practices. DigiFarm, for example, is a USSD-enabled mobile platform that provides free e-learning content on good farming practices and financial literacy. This newfound access to information empowers farmers, allowing them to make informed decisions and optimise their crop yields.
Digital technology also plays a pivotal role in maximising crop output. Weather-based advisories, combined with agronomic guidance, enable farmers to make well-timed decisions regarding planting and crop care. “Farmers can now choose the right crops and select the appropriate fertilisers and pesticides, all based on real-time weather patterns. This leads to a more efficient and precise approach to agriculture, ultimately resulting in improved crop yields.”
Another pressing issue that smallholder farmers face is the difficulty of accessing markets. Digital innovations like the Farm to Market Alliance, which incorporates a mobile app, SMS gateway, and web portal, serve as a digital marketplace connecting farmers, buyers, input providers, and financial institutions. These technological solutions offer a promising avenue for addressing the problem of market access.
In conclusion, the integration of digital solutions into agriculture has brought about a range of transformative benefits for smallholder farmers. These advantages include improved crop productivity through informed decision-making, reduced vulnerability to unpredictable challenges, increased incomes, and the cultivation of greater resilience. The digital era has undeniably ushered in a new era of opportunity and growth for these essential contributors to our agricultural landscape, and we should leave no farmer behind.