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Digital tools can transform Africa, tackle food insecurity

In a recent conversation with The Africa Renewal magazine, I share why I believe Africa is poised to reap bountifully from the fourth industrial revolution. The Africa Renewal magazine works with the media in Africa and beyond to promote the work of the United Nations, Africa and the international community to bring peace and development to Africa.

  • Digital tools are currently accessible to Africans in a way that technologies weren’t in the previous industrial revolutions

  • Young farmers are leveraging digital tools to sell and harvest more.

  • Affordable internet and internet-enabled handsets remain a challenge


A conversation with Ugandan digital technologist, Timothy Laku.


By: Kingsley Ighobor and Damilola Adewumi

From: Africa Renewal

Date: 15 July 2021


If you can't read now, just listen to the audio version here


Digital transformation expert Timothy Laku, Ugandan, believes Africa is poised to reap bountifully from the fourth industrial revolution, which the economist Klause Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, says is being driven partly by digital technologies.


Mr. Laku’s sunny optimism derives from the fact that digital tools are currently accessible to Africans in a way that technologies weren’t in the previous industrial revolutions.


“The first industrial revolution was about steam engines being used for transportation—ships. The second industrial revolution was when electricity was discovered. The third revolution was the invention of the computer,” he says, in an interview with Africa Renewal.


“It took about 50 years for Africa to adopt the technologies in the first and second industrial revolutions, and it took 10 years for computers to gain ground on the continent.”


On par with other regions


But now, maintains the digital expert, “It’s the first time in history that Africa is on par with the rest of the world.


“If it's the internet, Africa also has internet; If it’s technology that’s being piloted in Japan, countries in Africa are also piloting it. For example, about six or seven countries are already testing the 5G in Africa,” he says.


Mr. Laku, who is the Chief Technology Officer of Bringo Fresh, a Uganda-based company that uses an online platform to connect farmers to consumers, recently spoke at a virtual forum organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. He seized the opportunity to canvass the use of technology to tackle food loss and waste.


Globally, some 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted each year.


At Bringo Fresh, he says: “We aggregate data on the supply side and the demand side. We provide farmers the information that supports their production planning and guarantees them a consistent market for their produce.”


Bringo Fresh also trains farmers on good farming practices and on avoiding food loss and waste.


Technology in agriculture


Mr. Laku gushes about the catalytic potential of mobile phones in African agriculture. “Let’s take mobile money. Farmers sell their produce and that money stays in their phones. When they want to pay school fees for their children, they transfer the money from the mobile money account to the school mobile account. They do not need to leave the farms.


“They pay for goods and services through mobile phones, and that means more time to work on the farms.”


The Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA), which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, states in its 2021 report that, globally, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for “half of live mobile money services and two-thirds of total transactions value.” It maintains that that figure will increase in the coming years because the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing people to rely on digital services.


Mr. Laku’s premise is that farmers need pertinent data to be successful. He explains it like this: “In one township, farmers sell maize for $10 per bag. But in another nearby town, maybe 30 minutes drive away, a bag of maize sells for $15. If that information is available on the phone to such farmers, they can sell their produce in that town and earn more money. So, they’re benefiting from information made available through technology.”


The gradual integration of technology in agriculture is drawing young Africans to the sector, he observes.


“What we're seeing now is that more young people are participating in agriculture. They are leveraging mobile phones and digital applications: a website, an e-commerce platform, mobile apps, online orders—things like that excite them.


Attracting young people


“Back in the day, farming meant getting to an open field and tilling the soil. Not anymore.”


A symbiosis of the tech-savviness of the young and the experience of the old is a win-win for both.


He notes: “The older farmers who are not tech-savvy, who are seeing the young farmers leveraging digital tools to sell and harvest more, are now starting to say, ‘maybe it's time for me to understand this thing called smartphone. Maybe I should start to understand this technology.’”


What about post-production losses?


Post-production losses are partly due to a lack of information, which, again, is solvable through innovation, Mr. Laku asserts.


“So, the farmers don’t have the information to allow them to manage the post-production process. They don't know how to store the produce because they have not been professionally trained to do it. They have been doing it traditionally, the way their grandparents did it.”


Farmers and AfCFTA


Mr. Laku foresees the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as being a boon to African farmers. The AfCFTA guarantees free movement of goods and services produced on the continent.


“As long as there are no border restrictions, and there's one flat tax rate or no tax at all, farmers can plan and say, ‘okay, I have this much land and because I can access bigger markets, I can produce maybe five times or 10 times more,’” he explains.


He adds that farmers will require information about demand and supply in foreign markets. “And the only way that information gets to them is through digital platforms.”


The snag, though, in all this digital transformation, is the cost of the internet. “If the cost of internet is exorbitant, it's impossible for farmers to take advantage of digital technology,” he says. “Internet access should be a human right.”


Affordable internet and internet-enabled handsets remain a challenge. The GSMA notes that, “In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the median cost of an entry-level internet-enabled handset represented more than 120 percent of monthly income for the poorest 20 percent of the population in 2019.”


Mr. Laku also mentions inadequate infrastructure, particularly bad roads, as another challenge.


“As much as digital depends on the internet, but if a farmer cannot move a truckload of produce from one town to another because it's rainy season and the roads are bad, the process ends abruptly,” he says. “The supply chain in Africa is one of the reasons everything becomes very expensive.


Conflict or political instability in some countries is also a hurdle, he admits. “As long as there's conflict in a country, farmers cannot leverage technology fully for development.”


The export of raw commodities from Africa that are then processed overseas and exported back to the continent will slow the quest for commodities-based industrialization, he warns.


Adding value to produce


“There is a market for value-added products in Africa. Why can't we build the manufacturing facilities to add value to our produce,” he asks rhetorically.


“What’s also missing is the information regarding how big a market is for a product and how much money should be invested. For example, if it is understood how much money can be made from the chocolate value chain and how huge that market is in Africa, then more local investors will be interested in the value addition conversation.


“As it is, it may take me 10 years to break even in a single country, but if I have access to Africa’s 1.2 billion market, as opposed to Uganda’s 40 million, then, suddenly, the return on investment becomes attractive.” In this case, he says the AfCFTA is most welcome.


Finally, Mr. Laku advises young Africans to try being social entrepreneurs. “Look out for opportunities out there and think about how you can leverage digital tools to turn those into profitable ventures while at the same time adding value to your community.”


This article was first published on the Africa Renewal website.


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