Centro de inversiones de la FAO

Transforming agriculture in Africa through digitalization, new webinar series


Nearly 500 people recently participated in the first of four webinars on transforming agriculture in Africa through digitalization, organized by the FAO Investment Centre and African Development Bank.

The turnout speaks to the popularity of the topic and the relative ease and efficiency of bringing together so many people virtually to share knowledge, insights and lessons on the benefits of digitalization.

“Before the COVID-19 crisis, digital technologies were changing the global economy, and agrifood systems were part of that transformation. With COVID-19, this trend has accelerated,” said FAO Investment Centre Director Mohamed Manssouri.

While the webinars are looking at quick digital responses to disruptions caused by COVID-19, they are also exploring what is needed for a digital transformation in agriculture on the continent.

“Efforts need to be catalysed on both the policy and investment fronts for digitalization to help make agrifood systems more productive, more inclusive and more sustainable in the future,” Manssouri added.

The first webinar set the scene, including the roles that national governments, the private sector, farmers and organizations like the African Development Bank and FAO can play.

Dr Martin Fregene, the Bank’s Director of Agriculture and Agro-Industries, spoke of seizing on this “wave of interest to ‘leap-frog’ decades of limited investment in hard information communication technology, or ICT, infrastructure and in soft commodity value chains, especially the staple crops of smallholder farmers, and build digital platforms that facilitate linkages between value chain actors at much reduced transaction costs.”  

Disruptions and building back better

Digital technologies can assist in everything from a more efficient use of inputs and climate-smart agriculture, to greater market access and increased transparency, speed and reliability of transactions, and from improved food safety and quality through traceability to access to finance and crop and livestock insurance.

Yet agriculture is still one of the least digitized sectors in the global economy.

The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted agrifood systems throughout the African continent, as it has throughout the rest of the world.

Key supply chains have been interrupted, markets closed and movement restricted, resulting in agriculture labour shortages. Farmers are missing planting seasons, while agribusiness firms are facing liquidity constraints. 

Demand from hotels, restaurants and catering has dwindled, and consumer preferences have shifted away from highly perishable foods, like fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, to ones with longer shelf-lives. 

Digital technologies like mobile payments and e-commerce platforms could help alleviate some of these disruptions, especially in the short term.  

As the pandemic gradually shifts from an emergency response to recovery and resilience, there is an opportunity to “build back better”, according to FAO Investment Officer Gerard Sylvester.

“Financial inclusion will be a game changer in rural communities,” he said. “While we are optimistic by the opportunities created by digital solutions, we also need to look at the reality.”

This includes addressing the relatively low adoption by small-scale farmers across the continent and closing the gender digital divide.

The digital transformation in agriculture, especially among rural communities, involves the “3 Cs” of cost, capacity and content, he said.

“We need to ensure that costs are not a barrier, that small-scale farmers have the capacity to adopt and apply digital advisory and other knowledge products and that the content is relevant, localized and actionable.”

Digital, data-driven, tech-enabled solutions

In his presentation, Dr Ed Mabaya, Manager of the Bank’s Agri-business Division, pointed to trends in Africa, including population growth, an expanding middle class, a youth bulge and changing diets. By 2030, the African food market will likely be worth USD 1 trillion.

“While Africa has yet to experience the Green Revolution happening elsewhere in the world, we at the Bank think the continent is well-placed to take advantage of the digital revolution,” he said.

“The growth of digital, data-driven and tech-enabled solutions can trigger a new green revolution for Africa, addressing some of the challenges and constraints along the entire value chain, from input supply to the consumer end,” he added.

He noted the 365 ICT and digital solutions actively operating in the African agriculture space as of 2018, reaching around 32.7 million smallholder farmers (CTA, 2018) This includes pioneering solutions like Kenya’s M-PESA, one of the world’s largest mobile money networks.

The African Development Bank, which officially launched its Digital Agriculture Flagship at the

Tokyo International Conference on African Development in August 2019, sees a unique role to use public sector investment to create an enabling environment that would unlock the potential of digital solutions across Africa. The Bank is also focused on improving digital literacy, building the capacity of all actors in the ecosystem and promoting public-private partnerships.

“Agriculture has not changed in 100 years. It still requires good seed, water, fertilizer, mechanization. We just think digital solutions can act as a catalyser to make this transformation happen faster,” Mabaya said.

Viability and scalability

A panel discussion followed the webinar’s keynote addresses and presentations.*

The panellists identified suitable and promising investments for the digital transformation of African agriculture during and after COVID-19. These ranged from digital profiling of value chain actors to mobile payments and e-commerce. Technologies should be simple, including the use of social media.

They also addressed the necessary policy and regulatory frameworks for inclusiveness, scalability and viability, including for data governance and protection, digital financial products, digital ID systems, e-contracts and e-extension services.

Finally, they discussed business models and partnerships that would encourage greater digital uptake, especially by small-scale producers.

The bundling of digital services, agtech innovation challenges and open interoperability systems could help build financially viable supply capacity. Certain models, like business-to-business, business-to-government and business-to-consumer, are being tested. While on the demand side, the digital aggregation of producers could be key to building a critical mass and sufficient demand for multiple digital services.

The upcoming webinars will explore trends and digital solutions that can be mainstreamed into public and private investment for Africa’s agricultural transformation.

Next up

  • 24 June 2020: Data-driven solutions for advisory and planning. Regsiter here
  • 8 July 2020: Improving market access through e-commerce
  • 22 July 2020: Financial inclusion 


* Panellists

Wuraola Jinadu, Business Development Manager, Vodacom Business, Nigeria

Myriam Said, Digital Adviser, Office of the Prime Minister, Ethiopia

Mao Yohannes, ICT Project Team, 80-28 Hotline, Agricultural Transformation Agency, Ethiopia

Benito Eliasi, Programme Officer for the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SAC

Chris Lukolyo, Digital Country Lead, UN Capital Development FUND, Uganda

Benjamin Addom, Team Leader, ICT for Agriculture, CTA (provided closing remarks)


Photo credit Jordi Vaque