It should not all be gloom and doom with the COVID-19 pandemic as speakers at a webinar jointly hosted by the FAO Investment Centre and the African Development Bank have advised that Africa must seize the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic to deepen the digitalization of agricultural value chains and transform the sector.
The webinar was the first of a four-part series discussing transforming agriculture in Africa through digitalization. It explored digital responses that can be quickly deployed to address the disruptions to food systems, caused by COVID-19. It also examined the requirements for digital transformation in agriculture on the continent.
The speakers identified potential investments for the digital transformation of African agriculture during and after COVID-19, ranging from digital profiling of value chain actors to mobile payments and e-commerce. The participants also discussed 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. The meeting proposed the bundling of digital services, agri-tech innovation challenges and open systems to help build financially viable supply capacity.
According to FAO Investment Centre Director Mohamed Manssouri: “Efforts need to be catalysed on both the policy and investment fronts for digitalization to help make agri-food systems more productive, more inclusive and more sustainable in the future.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis, digital technologies were changing the global economy, and agri-food systems were part of that transformation. “With COVID-19, this trend has accelerated,” Manssouri noted.
About 500 people, representing agri-tech, telecom, government agency implementers, policy makers, farmers and development partners, participated.
The panelists included Business Development Manager, Vodacom Business, Nigeria, Wuraola Jinadu; Digital Adviser, Office of the Prime Minister, Ethiopia, Myriam Said; Agricultural Transformation Agency, Ethiopia, Mao Yohannes; Programme Officer, Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, Benito Eliasi and Digital Country Lead, UN Capital Development Fund, Uganda, Chris Lukolyo.
Like elsewhere, the spread of COVID-19 has disrupted agri-food systems across Africa. Key supply chains have been interrupted, markets closed and movement restricted, resulting in agricultural labor shortages. Farmers are missing planting seasons, while agribusinesses are facing liquidity constraints.
Demand for 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.
“We must also use this wave of interest to build digital platforms that facilitate linkages between value chain actors at much-reduced transaction costs,” the Bank’s Director of Agriculture and Agro-Industries, Martin Fregene said.
As the pandemic gradually shifts from an emergency response to recovery and resilience, there is an opportunity to build back better in the agricultural sector, FAO Investment Officer Gerard Sylvester said, noting that financial inclusion will be a game-changer in rural communities.
“We need to ensure that costs are not a barrier, that small-scale farmers can adopt and apply digital advisory and other knowledge products and that the content is relevant, localized and actionable.”
Manager of the Bank’s Agri-business Division, Ed Mabaya said that “population growth, coupled with the expanding middle class, youth bulge, and changing diets could drive the value of the African food market to $1 trillion by 2030.”
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 noted.
In his closing remarks, Team Leader, ICT for Agriculture at the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA), Benjamin Addom, noted that digitalisation is critical for the agricultural sector due to the potential negative impact of the health crisis on economic recovery and food security.
“We need to understand the linkage between digital agriculture solutions and services with big data and analytics, viable business models, and the enabling environment required to be able to fully realise digitalisation for agriculture during recovery and sustainability,” he said.
The African Development Bank launched its Digital Agriculture flagship initiative at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in August 2019, with the aim of helping to create an enabling environment to unlock digital solutions across Africa.