Sustainable Agricultural Digitization in Rural Nigeria: A Call for Infrastructural Development
Author: Oladele I. Osanyinlusi
The agrifood sector remains critical for livelihoods and employment as there are more than 570 million smallholder farms worldwide (Lowder et al., 2016) and agriculture and food production accounts for 28% of the entire global workforce (ILOSTAT, 2019). Historically, agriculture has undergone a series of revolutions that have driven efficiency, yield and profitability to previously unattainable levels (Trendov et al., 2019). In relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, digital agriculture has the potential to deliver economic benefits via increased agricultural productivity, cost efficiency and market opportunities, social and cultural benefits through increased communication and inclusivity and environmental benefits through optimized resource use (Trendov et al., 2019).
However, one of the global and agricultural sector challenges is meeting global food demand which comes partly as a result of increased population growth (Trendov et al., 2019; UNDESA, 2019; UNDESA, 2017). Much of this growth rate has come from the developing countries. The market forecasts for the next decade suggest a ‘digital agricultural revolution’ will be the newest shift which could help ensure agriculture meets the needs of the global population into the future (Trendov et al., 2019). Digitizing agriculture is essentially the use of digital technologies, innovations, and data to transform business models and practices across the agricultural value chain and address impediments in productivity, post-harvest handling, market access, finance, and supply chain management to achieve greater income for smallholder farmers, improve food and nutrition security, build climate resilience and expand inclusion of youth and women.
The introduction of digital technologies such as mobile phones and internet has significantly affected sectors of economy including agricultural sector (Deichmann et al., 2016). This digitalization will change every part of the agrifood chain. This new shift will be largely data driven and which would make farmers more adaptable to climate change and make their farming activities more profitable, ensure greater food security, and sustainability (Trendov et al., 2019). Digital technologies are creating new opportunities to integrate smallholders in a digitally-driven agrifood system (USAID, 2018).
Trendov et al. (2019) explained two conditions to driving digital transformation particularly in developing countries. Factors such as availability, connectivity, affordability, ICT in education and supportive policies and programmes are the basic conditions, which are the minimum conditions required to use technology. The second condition is enabling condition called enablers, which are factors that further facilitate the adoption of technologies such as use of internet, mobile phones and social media, digital skills and support for agripreneurial and innovation culture (e.g. talent development). Having access to digital technology has been established to offer significant advantages to smallholder farmers and other rural business by providing links to suppliers and information such as support services like training, finance, and critically reach market and customers (Trendov et al., 2019).
Precision Agriculture (PA) is one form of digitizing agriculture which comprises these improved management technologies such as soil sensing and mapping, yield monitoring and mapping, satellite-based positioning, remote sensing, field and crop scouting, geographical information systems (GIS), variable rate application, and automatic steering (Ess and Morgan, 2003; Rains & Thomas, 2009; Say et al., 2017). It has better management practices resulting in more precision in agricultural operations from tillage to harvesting to reduce inputs, increase profits, and protect environment (Say et al., 2017). Say et al. (2017) compared adoption rate of precision agriculture technologies between developed and developing countries and found that adoption of PA is an increasing trend in some of these countries but more with developed countries. The major factor identified driving PA adoption is farm size and it was stated countries with bigger farm such as US, Australia, Brazil, etc. are more likely to adopt these precision technologies in a bigger margin (Say et al., 2017).
The next period of growth in mobile connections is expected to come mainly from rural communities (Trendov et al., 2019). It is no gainsaying that digital technologies today are changing many aspects of life in both developed and developing countries. World Bank (2016) reported that even among the poorest 20% in developing countries, 70% have access to mobile phones. This is more than the access to other basic infrastructures such as electricity in rural homes (Deichmann et al., 2016). In addition, more than 40% of the global population has internet access. However, majority yet to be connected reside in rural areas (Deichmann et al., 2016). Though globally, the introduction of digital technologies in rural areas or remote rural communities where poverty rates are often high can be challenging due to lack of infrastructure including basic IT infrastructure (Trendov et al., 2019), the factors such as infrastructure, e-literacy, networks, power supply, and economies of scale could drive digitization more in developing countries (Trendov et al., 2019).
Digitization’s impact is however not uniform across economies in different stages of development. It has a greater impact on economic growth in developed economies than in developing ones. It has been established that there are significant disparities between the developed and developing countries in respect to the adoption of digital agriculture technologies (Trendov et al., 2019; Say et al., 2017). These disparities have also been extended to global companies and companies at a local, community, and family scale (Trendov et al., 2019). The small farmers in rural areas are disproportionately disadvantaged as well as facing problems of limited access to infrastructure, networks and technology (Trendov et al., 2019).
In emerging economies and rural areas, weak technological infrastructure, high costs of technology, low levels of e-literacy and digital skills, weak regulatory framework and limited access to services mean these areas risk being left behind in the digitalization process (Trendov et al., 2019). Because transformative digital innovations are often not designed for the scale at which smallholder farmers operate, it therefore puts them at disadvantage (Trendov et al., 2019). Yet, developing economies may also have the advantage of being able to ‘leapfrog’ older agrifood technologies and models in favour of a digital agriculture revolution (Trendov et al., 2019). This will call for a new approach by policy makers, international organisations, business leaders and individuals.
The advent of mobile phones and computers have revolutionized how people access knowledge and information, do business and use services. Yet there remain significant digital divides both within and between countries (Trendov et al., 2019; European Parliament, 2015b). The digital divide between the urban and rural areas came because the urban centres have better developed digital ecosystem (resources, skills, networks) than rural centres. Thus, making rural population where the farmers are concentrated falls behind in the process of a digital transformation (Trendov et al., 2019).
The benefits of digitized agricultural technologies cannot be downplayed. They promote greater inclusion in the broader economy, raise efficiency by complementing other production factors, and foster innovation by dramatically reducing transaction costs (Deichmann et al., 2016). Digital technologies overcome information problems that hinder market access for many small-scale farmers, increase knowledge through new ways of providing extension services, and they provide novel ways for improving agricultural supply chain management (Deichmann et al., 2016). However, they asserted that digital technologies are often not scaled up to the extent expected and they can only some of the barriers faced farmers in poorer countries.
The introduction of digital agriculture to Nigerian agriculture and food sector where farming stays mainly at the subsistence or smallholder level has the capacity to eliminate inefficiencies in her farming system. According to Trendov et al. (2019), in the agriculture and food sector, the spread of mobile technologies, remote-sensing services and distributed computing are already improving smallholders’ access to information, inputs, market, finance and training in developing countries. Although the Nigerian government is prioritizing diversifying its economy through agriculture, mining and industry, the investment in agricultural sector is still not digital based; indicating a lack of government support and regulatory frameworks for digital transformation (Trendov et al., 2019).
The factors such as power supply, IT infrastructure, e-literacy, among others as indicated by Trendov et al. (2019) that could drive agricultural digitization are grossly deficient in Nigerian economy more critically, in the rural sector. Even when the IT infrastructures are available, the issue of epileptic power supply as being currently experienced would not make them to fully benefit from it. This is a reflection of poor investments and neglect in these areas by the Nigerian government. In addition, the data on digital agriculture in the country particularly on rural and urban sectors are still grossly unavailable. Another limiting situation of ensuring most of the smallholder farmers in rural Nigeria enjoy the benefits of digital agriculture is the e-illiteracy factors since majority of the farmers are ageing. Those who use mobile phones primarily use them for making calls. In addition, the mobile phones might not be internet connectible which could limit their access to market and innovations thereby impeding food security. It is therefore necessary for all government and private sectors to encourage youth involvement in agriculture by giving out incentives in order to eliminate e-illiteracy and to take full benefits of digital agriculture. Investments in infrastructural development are additionally critical to the success and sustenance of digital agriculture in Nigeria in order to close the digital divides. Achieving food security and productivity would remain a mirage in Nigeria if these critical factors are not put in place.
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