Part 3: How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa

Shanley Knox — Contributor — @ BylineBeat

(Brooklyn, New York) Lwando Mwila’s belief in Zambia’s agricultural future drove him to leave his job and begin working with small scale farmers. Mwila developed a passion for the small business sector while working as a business planning manager at Musaka’s Standard Charter Bank. After leaving the bank, he launched Vitality Business and Capital Solutions, a company with a focus on business advising and capital sourcing, where Mwila said he has quickly seen the potential of “mAgri,” a term used to describe mobile applications that further agricultural work. 
 “It is a place that has so much opportunity in the sense that if we position ourselves,” Mwila said. “Give it five years max and this agriculture sector is going to be the one that is most thriving world over.”

Mwila’s company exists to address issues of access to information, communication and education - three issues he feels are holding back Africa’s agricultural sector. To this end, Vitality Business and Capital Solutions recently partnered with a Zambian technology hub called BongoHive to begin developing a mobile application that Mwila believes will provide targeted solutions for all three core problems.

“The app is a tool which I see to be the connection to the translation of the farmer from the current state to the next state,” Mwila said. “It will also empower them on how to understand or appreciate the value of technology and the advancement that can happen in the agricultural sector.”

Technology in general, and ICT in particular, have already had a huge impact in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Doug Gollin, Professor of Development Economics at Oxford. He recalls visiting the continent 25 years ago and noticing a lack of communication outside of the larger cities. Communication in Africa has since transformed, evidenced by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2011 report that Mobile telephone subscriptions have grown faster in Africa than in any other region in the world since 2003.

“The spread of mobile phones has been really fast and has put a lot of information in the hands of a lot of people, and I think that has already had a huge impact on farmer’s awareness of markets,” Gollin said. “It’s changed the bargaining relationship between farmers and traders.”

Farmers that were previously ignorant to current market pricing, were too remote to gain access to vital information and were without weather updates have remained physically remote, have  connected to information through mobile phones and other forms of communications and information technology (ICT).  Access to mobile phones has provided market prices, weather updates, input and output rates and information regarding the market of individual products. Gollin noted that before access to ICT solutions, farmers reporting problems with their plant or soil were forced to wait for a government-provided extension agent to physically show up on their farm and tell them what to do with their problem. With more advanced technologies, however, a farmer can take a photo, send it in, and get a very quick response on issues that would have previously taken much longer to solve.

Cell phone-based applications are also able to take soil or temperature readings and play a vital role in irrigation techniques that are crucial in Africa’s ability to bypass historical inefficiencies in irrigation management. Citing irrigation via canals as an example of irrigation efficiency in Asia and the United States, Gollin said that, if development is managed correctly, Africa has the opportunity to bypass archaic methods of irrigation and move straight to micromanaging delivery systems and levels of water release.

Mobile technology, however, may not be the silver bullet for which enthusiasts like Mwila are hoping. While Gollin said he believes mobile technology is certainly helpful within the growth of the agricultural sector, he pointed out that access to information is only one of the factors holding farmers back from capacity building. There are still fundamental issues around remoteness and the quality of roads. For example, if you have to carry something on your head to the nearest road and it is several kilometers away, then the difficulty in transport is a drawback to selling.

“ICT and the flow of information have alleviated one set of restraints for farmers,” Gollin said. “But it has by no means alleviated all restraints.”

Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, agreed that mobile technology is not an all-inclusive solution. According to Juma, Africa’s agricultural sector is held back by four main issues: transportation, energy, irrigation and communication. Mobile technology, he commented, only targets one of them. Until a basic level of transportation and energy solutions are provided in the agricultural sector, he said he believes mobile technology’s solutions will be limited.

“You can know the price of produce, you can have land to produce it, but if you can’t move it, then you aren’t going to be successful,” Juma commented. “The worry I have is there are people who think  mobile technologies are a solution to everything. But I don’t think they will have a big impact in agriculture until you have these foundational investments, because there are no substitutes for roads, for instance.”

Information about whether farmers are truly better off because of mobile phones is inconclusive, according to Jenny Aker, Assistant Professor of Economics at Tufts University. During her work on the ground with projects surrounding mobile phones, literacy and cash transfers in Niger, Aker said she documented evidence of farmers using mobile phones to get information, transact and conclude sales, but the long-term effects of this utilization remains to be seen.

“Mobile phones are only going to be useful if information is a problem,” Aker said.

While Gollin agreed  there are many issues yet to be solved within Africa’s agricultural sector, he emphasized that mobile technology is a crucial part of the push towards capacity building and solutions for farmers, particularly within the areas of extension information and irrigation.

GSMA, the global association for the mobile industry, also reported that with better access to quality and actionable information, farmers will be able to boost their productivity and income. mAgri Programme Director Fiona Smith said leading examples of mAgri innovation include Esoko, a successful, scalable commercial agri-info mobile service available across many countries in Africa, IKSL, an innovative scaled mobile product in India and Nokia Life tools, a service providing farmers and rural communities living in remote areas with information specific to their livelihoods. Beyond that, she noted the French National Institute for National Research has seen a 10% revenue  increase for smallholder farmers in Northern Ghana after receiving and utilizing Esoko SMS market prices.

Smith said  farmers have voiced a need for solutions with pest and disease management, soil preparation and management, weather information on when to plant, harvest and apply fungicides and post-harvest management, such as where and how to store produce effectively. Beyond that, Smith said, they have asked for input advice on better seed varieties as well as knowing how and where to market their produce. Many, if not all, of these issues can be addressed with targeted information through mobile applications.

Calestous agreed that mAgri projects across Africa have already provided proof of concept since their inception two years ago, yet still noted that capacity building for farmers on a large scale remains to be seen in Africa - and will depend on the ability of African governments and investors to provide the investment necessary for farmers to succeed.

“Until [infrastructure] issues are sorted out there is very little chance for Africa to solve its problems,” Juma said. “But if those issues get sorted out, Africa could feed itself in a generation - in some places even less.”

Whether or not the agricultural sector is given the infrastructure that Juma said is so desperately lacking, Mwila said he plans to provide both the information and inspiration necessary to bring farmers to the next level when it does.

“If a kid watches the Olympics […] tomorrow you see them running around tirelessly,” Mwila said. “When the app comes, they can see this information at their fingertips, on their mobile phone.”


Editor’s Note: Shanley Knox manages a social enterprise building the capacity of female artisans in rural Uganda. She spends several weeks in southern and central Uganda each year.

Series Schedule: Part 4 of How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa will be published on September 25, 2012.


Read Part 1: How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa