African agriculture has long been a symbol of the continent’s poverty. Officials considered the hundreds of millions of African smallholder farmers too backward to thrive; the future would arrive not by investing in them but rather by bypassing them. But all that is changing.
In recent years, African agricultural policies have been haphazard and inconsistent. Some countries have neglected smallholders in favor of commercial farmers. Others have given them attention but focused narrowly on increasing their productivity. African farms’ harvests are indeed much smaller than harvests elsewhere, so increasing productivity is important. But agriculture is about more than yields. A vast food system spreads beyond farm and table to touch almost every aspect of life in every society. Making that system in Africa as robust as possible will not merely prevent starvation. It will also fight poverty, disease, and malnutrition; create businesses and jobs; and boost the continent’s economies and improve its trade balances.
Food systems cannot be created quickly out of whole cloth. They tend to evolve incrementally over time. But in digital technology, today’s African leaders have a powerful tool they can deploy to help clear away the primary obstacle to progress: the profound isolation of the vast majority of smallholder farmers. Until now, it has been very hard to get information to or from smallholders, preventing their efficient integration into the broader economy. But mobile communications can shatter this isolation and enable the creation of a new food system suited to contemporary needs. If farsighted leaders seize this opportunity, they can transform African agriculture from a symbol of poverty and backwardness into a powerful engine of economic and social development.
The new African food system should be built around the idea that agriculture is about more than producing calories; it is about changing society. Its five components should be valuing the smallholder farmer, empowering women, focusing on the quality as well as the quantity of food, creating a thriving rural economy, and protecting the environment.
Neither of us is sentimental about small farms, but we recognize the need to be practical. More than 80 percent of African agricultural production comes from smallholders. Any rational food system for Africa must put its smallholders first. Over the years, many African governments have tried to bypass the existing agricultural sector by investing in large-scale commercial farms, on the theory that they would be more efficient. But allocating large blocks of land to foreign investors, reserving water for industrial-sized operations, and concentrating research and development on a few cash crops doesn’t help most farmers. It also hasn’t generated enough produce to feed the continent’s rapidly growing urban areas, which is why food imports are going through the roof—and why city dwellers are spending more than they should on food.
In fact, Africa’s smallholders are more than capable of feeding the continent—so long as they boost their yields by using the latest agronomic practices in combination with appropriately adapted seeds and fertilizer. Most have not adopted these improvements, however, because they don’t know about them, or can’t get to a place where they can buy them, or can’t afford them. The infrastructure to link most smallholders to markets simply doesn’t exist, which means that many farmers have little incentive to increase their productivity in order to generate surpluses to sell. Enabling smallholder farmers to grow more food and sell it in formal markets for a fair price would change life for almost every poor person in Africa.
The keys to fixing this problem are supplying smallholders with appropriate seeds and fertilizer, providing education and training, and ensuring easy access to markets and larger economic networks. Mobile technology can help on all these fronts. Cell phones and digital videos, for example, can revolutionize education and training. Digital Green, an organization that broadcasts videos of farmers conducting training sessions in local languages, is the next generation of farmer extension programs. Because farmers tend to trust their peers more than outside experts, Digital Green’s model has led farmers to adopt better methods at very high rates. The organization expanded from India into Ethiopia and is exploring pilot programs in Ghana, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
Women, meanwhile, provide the majority of the labor on African farms, but on average, they are less productive than men—13 to 25 percent less productive, according to a report published last year by the World Bank and the ONE Campaign. The reasons for this are complicated, ranging from sex discrimination in extension programs to cultural norms that can make it difficult for women to hire and manage labor during the harvest. But fixing it is a necessity. Not only do women form a major part of the agricultural work force; they also spend much more of what they earn than men do on goods such as education, nutrition, and health care, which have large positive multiplier effects. So when women have money and the power to decide how to spend it, everybody benefits.
Here again, digital technology can be incredibly useful. Giving women cell phones allows them to transact business directly, without mediators; open bank accounts only they can access; receive information and training that local men might not support; and get market prices in real time in order to negotiate effectively with potential buyers.
As for food quality, only now is the true impact of malnutrition on poor countries beginning to be understood. It is an underlying cause of almost half of all the deaths of children under five around the world and leaves tens of millions more children cognitively or physically impaired for the rest of their lives. Food everywhere is less nutritious than it should be; in the United States, for example, the food system is designed to supply people with as many calories as possible, that taste as good as possible, for as little money as possible. As a result, American agriculture focuses on corn as a vehicle for sugar, breeds that corn for high yields rather than nutritional value, and processes it to remove whatever nutrients might still remain. This means that Americans get lots of cheap, tasty breakfast cereal that isn’t good for them.
The current African food system shares some of these features. The seeds available in Africa are bred for yield almost to the exclusion of other traits; the breeders who develop these seeds focus mostly on corn and wheat, so crops such as cassava and sorghum remain unimproved; and roller mills remove nutritional value in Africa just as they do in North America. But there are some reasons to be optimistic. For example, the fortification of food that has long been standard in developed countries has begun coming to Africa as well. Rice in Ghana, maize in Zambia, and sweet potato in several countries are now being fortified with vitamin A. And biofortification promises even bigger opportunities, as advances in genetics have made it easier to breed seeds with specific nutritional characteristics, such as high-zinc wheat and high-iron pearl millet.
In a robust food system, farms support a range of businesses. Farmers need financial services, seeds, and fertilizer before they begin planting; after they harvest, they need storage, transport, processing, and marketing. Every step in this process can be an opportunity for entrepreneurial activity, so in theory, a healthy food system could nurture an entire rural sector that creates wealth and provides off-farm employment opportunities to spread it around.
So far, such businesses have been few and far between in Africa, but that may be changing. In Nigeria, for example, for 40 years, the government bought seeds and fertilizer and then had them delivered to farmers. Not only did the system not work—little of the seeds and fertilizer ever reached smallholders—but it also crowded out entrepreneurs who could have served rural communities directly. To address these issues, Nigeria recently dismantled the public procurement system and implemented policies to spur new businesses. By giving farmers a 50 percent subsidy (via vouchers sent to their cell phones), the government has helped generate demand for seeds and fertilizer. In the meantime, to make sure there is enough supply to meet that demand, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Central Bank of Nigeria launched a risk-sharing program to encourage local banks to make agricultural loans. And with the partial guarantee, banks have quadrupled their lending to the agriculture sector. The number of seed companies operating in Nigeria has gone from just 11 to more than 100, and there are now thousands of local mom-and-pop shops selling these companies’ seeds directly to farmers.
The green revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, finally, introduced new and highly productive agricultural technologies and methods and fed a billion people in Asia and Latin America. But it also ended up doing significant damage to the environment of those regions, depleting the soil and reducing biodiversity. We now know that ensuring the long-term sustainability of the African agricultural environment is more critical than ever, given the problems already being caused by climate change.
The good news is that with digital education in basic conservation techniques, such as crop rotation with legumes, so-called green manure, and good water management, smallholder farmers can not only increase yields in the short term but also restore soil health over time. This is crucial, since African soils are the most depleted in the world.
THE PROMISE OF DIGITAL
Digital technology can help advance all these principles simultaneously. It makes connections possible, transfers information instantaneously, and can help build virtual communities even among widely separated and remotely located individuals and communities.
Some appropriate digital applications are already in use, and more are in development. In 2014, for example, Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency launched an agricultural hot line, and it has already logged almost 6.5 million calls. It also sends text messages and automated calls containing up-to-date agronomic information to 500,000 users. The agency is also developing the Ethiopian Soil Information System, or EthioSIS, a digital soil map analyzing the country’s soils down to a resolution of ten kilometers by ten kilometers. Eventually, these two systems will merge, transmitting cutting-edge, highly tailored information to millions of farmers.
This essay was first published in Foreign Affairs.