Bridging digital divide can improve food security in Africa

A new report has recommended actions to consider to build digital skills for African rural communities and farmers to improve their livelihoods.

The report, titled “Byte by byte: Policy innovation for transforming Africa’s food system with digital technologies, 2019,” sates that the digital divide between Africa’s urban and rural areas is particularly striking.

This, it says, is driven by limited or no access to electricity, weak networks, poor basic connectivity and low digital literacy.

While digital technologies can play an important role in supporting the transformation of African agriculture, the introduction of new technologies also entails challenges, particularly with respect to smallholder agriculture and women value chain actors.

An estimated 236 million Africans – about 23.2 per cent or almost one in four people in Africa – are hungry, according to the 2018 State Of Food Security And Nutrition in the World report by Food and Agriculture Organisation.

And, while Africa’s agribusiness sector is predicted to reach US$1 trillion by 2030 from $313 billion in 2013 according the latest estimates from the World Bank, farmers in rural areas are not equipped with required skills to tap into such a growing market through improving their produce and e-commerce.

The report summarises findings of a systematic analysis of the experiences of seven African countries that have been at the forefront of the application of digital innovations in the agriculture sector through institutional innovation and innovative policymaking.

These are Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.

The recommendations

In digital policy and education, the report recommended placing digitalisation at the core of national agricultural growth and transformation strategies and policies; and creating a transparent and smart regulatory environment that promotes the development and confident use of digital technologies and services and limits the risks.

In addition, it recommended expanding university curricula to spur digital innovation and the development of an African agtech (agriculture technology) sector; and strengthening skill development and digital literacy training for farmers and other actors in the food system as technologically more advanced innovations are being developed.

In investment and incentives

In order to build and hone digital skills for rural people, the study made recommendation to increasing investment in research and development to develop both frugal and cutting-edge digital solutions that meet the demands of all actors and at each segment of the food value chain.

Frugal innovation consists of reducing the complexity and cost of a goods and its production.

Introducing fiscal incentives to spur digital innovation and to facilitate market entry and the import of technologies until local markets are developed, can support rural people access digital tools and skills in an affordable way, the report recommended.

Also, it advocated for investing in supportive and infrastructures such as access to electricity, networks, internet connectivity to bridge the digital divide.

Meanwhile, the report made case for women digital empowerment, stating that in 2017, women in Sub-Saharan Africa were on average 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and 25 per cent less likely to have internet access.

This situation, it said, severely constrains the use of mobile phone services and digital technologies that could otherwise facilitate access to information on farm-related activities, nutrition and health, financial support or reaching higher-value markets.

In Rwanda, the report said, efforts have been made to advance digital skill development.

It cited knowledge lab (kLab), an open technology hub that supports entrepreneurs with mentorship and through networks.

It also cited the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Africa in cooperation with the MasterCard Foundation, which has developed master’s degree courses in electrical and computer engineering and information technology to train the next generation of technology leaders and entrepreneurs in Rwanda since 2016.

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