COP27 may take place in a different news context this year given the conflict in Ukraine and the fuel crisis in Europe, but the agenda has not changed. With global temperatures rising to record levels, the need for meaningful progress at this year’s UN climate conference has never been greater.
Across Africa, the acceleration of the climate emergency is jeopardizing food security, driving more people into hunger and starvation. As the Horn of Africa continues to battle a four-year drought, one person is starving every 36 seconds. Although the African continent contributes the least to climate change, it will be disproportionately affected by its effects. By 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that around 346.4 million Africans suffered from severe food insecurity, while another 452 million suffered from moderate food insecurity. However, by 2050, the population of Africa is expected to double. The continent may not be able to sustain food production for its own people, let alone export for profit.
A recent survey, carried out by Savanta Comres and commissioned by Vodafone, estimates that 94% of African farmers surveyed in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Egypt said that recent droughts had affected the viability of their agriculture. In Egypt and Kenya, this figure rose to almost 100%.
Despite these challenges, the survey found that groups of farmers in Africa were optimistic about the future. To a large extent, this optimism is rooted in the potential offered by digital farming technology. From reducing fertilizer use to increasing profit margins, technology can play a central role in driving the resilience, productivity and sustainability of our food systems.
Many of these farmers said that digital technology could help make farming successful in the future and they intended to invest more. The research also found that some of these farmers are already employing digital tools to help reduce water use and improve soil health, among other uses.
This type of technology adoption is key to both economic development and climate change mitigation for farmers in Africa. Connected Farmer, developed by Mezzanine, a technology start-up, with support and scale provided by Vodacom, serves as an excellent example of this. The digital platform allows small farmers to interact with a broader customer base, seek advice, access important information and even obtain credit.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, Vodacom’s Women Farmers Program is making farming more accessible and profitable for women by teaching them how to use apps to connect with potential customers and unlock huge economic opportunities.
In Kenya, DigiFarm leverages mobile and digital technology to offer farmers end-to-end access to a suite of products, including financial and credit services, quality agricultural products, and personalized information on agricultural best practices, all from the most basic phone. Vodacom Tanzania’s M-Kulima platform provides a digital marketplace where farmers can list their produce, allowing them to connect directly with buyers without the need for a middleman. And in Egypt, the site of this year’s COP27, Vodafone is empowering local communities through mobile agricultural guidance services.
However, despite the clear benefits of the technology in Africa’s agricultural sector, and farmers’ enthusiasm for it, they face significant barriers. The cost and availability of devices, poor mobile coverage or fixed connectivity, and a lack of digital skills impede adoption. Farmers in Africa want help and support from the government. However, it is not just about money. Farmers in Africa are also asking for training on how to use digital solutions and better mobile and fixed internet connectivity.
We all have a responsibility to ensure that farmers in Africa are supported to embrace digital technology. How can we do it?
We need to ensure access to digital devices and smartphones to drive innovative, resilient and climate-resilient agriculture in Africa. In 2022, more than 2.3 million Vodacom low-cost smartphones have been sold, demonstrating the demand and need for more affordable phones. With this in mind, policymakers should consider lowering or eliminating import duties and taxes to accelerate smartphone adoption in Africa, which would support economic inclusion for many, including farming communities.
At the same time, regulatory and policy reforms must incentivize investment in critical digital infrastructure to ensure farmers receive much-needed connectivity. Governments must also prioritize reliable network coverage and ubiquitous digital infrastructure to enable efficient data transmission.
Finally, we must transform restrictive regulatory policies and practices around digital, cloud and data services. These hamper the growth of Africa’s digital economy. By creating an enabling regulatory environment that supports the secure flow of data between countries through innovations like cloud computing, farmers will have the opportunity to access the critical agricultural knowledge they need to farm more effectively.
The war in Ukraine and the disruptions caused by COVID-19 have exacerbated an already dire food security picture. But the long-term, underlying threat remains climate change. It is critical that we put technology in the hands of Africa’s farmers to ensure they are well positioned to face this existential threat. A coherent policy platform implemented by governments and industry can help farmers embrace and create an innovative and climate-resilient agricultural sector in Africa. If we do that, we can help ensure long-term food security across the African continent.
— Shameel Joosub is CEO of Vodacom