Support to Investment

Data-driven advisory services key for Africa’s agricultural development

Second of four-part webinar series

What are some of the barriers keeping small farmers in Africa from adopting digital advisory services?  What do we mean by big data? What can governments do to encourage greater digital uptake?

These were some of the questions addressed during the second of four Transforming Agriculture in Africa Through Digitization webinars hosted by the African Development Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Investment Centre.

During the webinar, panelists and presenters explored how data-driven technologies can inform the agricultural ecosystem and contribute to major planning and investments.*

Event moderator Dr Ed Mabaya, Manager of the Bank’s Agri-business Division, said that COVID-19 had accelerated the use of digital technologies in the global economy, including in agriculture. 

“Digital innovation is new and exciting. Ten years ago, we didn’t hear buzzwords like data platforms and blockchains. But all of this digital innovation is meaningless unless it is converted and utilized by farmers, especially small-scale farmers, across Africa,” Mabaya said.


Going digital

The webinar’s first panel looked at the challenges and opportunities for meaningful adoption of digital advisory, peer-to-peer and knowledge dissemination services. 

Some of the obvious barriers include inadequate infrastructure, the lack of access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity, growing but still limited smartphone ownership. More nuanced and persistent obstacles include low levels of digital literacy among rural and older farmers, and insufficient content customized to small-scale farmers.  

Digital advisory services need to be accessible to farmers, using simple technologies like Short Message Service (SMS), Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) – sometimes referred to as "Quick Codes" – and other interactive tools like Interactive Voice Response (IVR), chat bots and other user-friendly mobile apps for learning, improved productivity and inclusiveness.

Services should create an engaging and intuitive experience, and advice should be customized to the farmers’ needs, including the ability to send and receive messages in local languages. Two-way knowledge sharing systems between farmers and service providers greatly increase effectiveness and tailored content.


Enhancing outreach

Panelists shared their views on how public policies and investment could enhance outreach, effectiveness and scalability of advisory services across Africa.

Investing in formal education and digital literacy, especially for women and men in rural communities, is key. So is providing incentives for more tech-savvy youth to enter agriculture, including better access to financing and opportunities for interesting jobs and entrepreneurial activities along the supply chain.

Other important areas include ensuring greater competition among telecommunication companies (Telcos), lowering taxation on handsets, improving network coverage in rural areas through enhanced competition among Telcos, investing in rural electricity access and facilitating access to public data. 

Bulking services through digital multiservice platforms is essential to scaling up and reaching more farmers with locally relevant, accessible products and services at affordable cost. Establishing public-private partnerships between technology providers, public entities at central and local level,  academia and research is the best approach for unleashing the potential of digital transformation in food systems.  


Digital Agriculture Profiles 

In introducing the African Development Bank’s Digital Agriculture Flagship, the programme’s Coordinator Kemi Afun-Ogidan said that “the objective of the Flagship is to help unlock the potential of digital solutions to transform agriculture across Africa.”

The Bank partnered with FAO, the World Bank and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to develop Digital Agricultural Profiles (DAP) for Rwanda, South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire. The DAPs give an overview of the current landscape, from key players to challenges to opportunities for quick-win digital solutions for agricultural value chains in a specific country.

“Accelerating agriculture’s transformation in Rwanda, for example, calls for a combination of low-tech and high-tech solutions alongside supportive policies and hard and soft infrastructure investments from the public and private sectors,” Afun-Ogidan said.

The DAP identified SMS/IVR, USSD, market information systems and GIS as high-impact, high potential technologies for Rwandan agriculture.


Big data

The webinar’s second panel focused on big data, which, as Carlo Bravi, Senior Economist in FAO Investment Centre noted, has become the “new gold.” Bravi told participants about the four “Vs” of big data – volume, variety, velocity and veracity.

“Data is a public good. Enormous amounts of data are being generated so quickly that near-real time predictions can be made. There’s traditional data, like official statistics and surveys, and non-traditional data from the digital footprints we leave behind on a daily basis on social media as well as mobile phone use and geo-localization,” he said. The latter are increasingly more relevant and useful, as they allow for up-to-date and accurate predictions. 

By bringing these datasets together for analysis, big data can reveal patterns and trends and help governments make the right decisions at the right time. This applies to farmers too, with readily accessible data, for example, on what and when to plant, where to access inputs and markets, how to optimize water resources. Governments play an important role in collating, synthesizing and making public good information that various actors in the agrifood system can access.

“FAO’s new Hand-in-Hand initiative, a country-owned and led initiative, is using advanced geospatial modelling and analytics for real-time decision-making by governments to tackle hunger and poverty,” said Dejan Jakovljevic, FAO’s Deputy Director for Information Technology.

“FAO’s digital service portfolio provides farmers with a platform on digital services,” he added.


Four Vs of big data

Volume: The sheer volume of data available is enormous and growing. This includes data generated both by people and by billions of sensors every second, communicating with servers over the Internet in what is called the Internet of Things.

Velocity: The speed at which data are created, stored, processed, analyzed, visualized and acted upon has increased up to real time. Big data usually involves collating data generated at various speeds and moments and accommodating bursts of activity.

Variety: The different kinds of data assets keep increasing, including structured and unstructured data from databases, devices, sensors, logs, social media, websites and posts, images, email communications, and audio and video streams, among others.

Veracity: Data quality (accuracy) is important and plays a major role in extracting intelligence from big data. The trustworthiness of the data source and processes to “clean up” data by removing abnormalities and inconsistencies are important for improving accuracy.  



Fairer, more equitable future 

Big data also raises big concerns around issues like data privacy and security, trust, usability, and data ownership and control.  

In sub-Saharan Africa, no specific regulations relate to agricultural data, thus regulating data flows is difficult. There is a need to define personal and non-personal data. The European Union’s recent regulation on the free flow of non-personal data, for example, defines data from precision agriculture as non-personal. This approach can facilitate the governance and use of agricultural data. 

Codes of conduct, though not legally binding, are a good way to bring more stakeholders into the discussion and move toward more fair and equitable data sharing. Both the private and public sectors need to build capacity to process large volumes of data. Panelists mentioned a toolkit to develop codes of conduct as well as a digital guide for an open data charter.

Looking to the future, panelists said increased digital literacy and access to digital solutions need to ensure no one is left behind. Greater smartphone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa, expected to reach 66 percent by 2025, will help.

A market for data should be created, with data governance and data regulation introduced simultaneously. A more connected ecosystem of farmer-tailored digital solutions would allow farmers across Africa to improve their livelihoods and well-being.


Next up

  • 8 July 2020: Improving market access through e-commerce, traceability and smart contracts
  • 22 July 2020: Financial inclusion

* Panellists and presenters

Ed Mabaya, Manager, African Development Bank

Carlo Bravi, Senior Economist, FAO

Georgia Barrie,  Co-founder,

Martha Haile, VP Africa, WeFarm

Emmanuel Bakirdjian, Africa Regional Director, Precision Agriculture for Development

Tawiah Agyarko Kwarteng, Sustainable Sourcing Manager, Ghana, The Hershey Company

Kemi Afun-Ogidan, Digital Agriculture Flagship Coordinator, African Development Bank

Dejan Jakovljevic, Deputy Director, Information Technology Division, FAO

Foteini Zampati, Data Rights Research Specialist, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN)

Winnie Karanu, AI Country Plan Program Manager, Microsoft

Christophe Bocquet, AgriTech Lead, Office for East Africa, Dalberg Group

Stuart Tippins, Digital Agriculture Specialist, FAO Country Office, Kenya


Photo credit Shutterstock.