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OPINION: Has Covid-19 Just Unlocked Digital Transformation in Agriculture?



By Nathan Were

From input ordering to agro-extension services, distribution and sales, digital solutions have helped farmers across the continent to stay in agriculture despite the stringent lock-down measures to deal with Covid-19.

The pandemic has had an immense disruption in supply chains across major value chains and most cases impacted not only production and productivity but made it difficult to trade as traditional market practices, travels have been altered due to social distancing measures to avoid crowding that fuels the spread of the virus.

In the middle of this crisis, developers have had the opportunity to bring out digital solutions to address the needs of value chain actors across the value chains of major crops.

When it became difficult to physically travel to an input shop to buy farm inputs and implements, farmers switched to online platforms to order them, make payments via mobile money, and have the inputs delivered to the farm through mobile logistic firms.

Similarly, when affected with a pest or disease farmers turned to digital platforms to access e-extension services either through toll-free lines to seek advisory from agronomists or use numerous interactive apps that allow farmers to share information on a particular pest or disease including photos of the affected crop to experts and receive instant feedback on the nature of disease, crop protection product options to use and how to apply them.

At harvest time, farmers have equally taken advantage of various digital marketplace options to market their products and connect with buyers, arrange delivery, with payments via mobile money.

The pandemic might have helped us sort out what has failed for many years. Several digital applications in agriculture have received very limited traction as adoption rates among farmers have been generally low.

This is partly because farmers prefer physical interaction but also because they have limited knowledge on how to use these platforms; low smart-phone penetration, high cost of mobile data, and limited mobile coverage among others.

According to GSMA, the association of mobile network operators, there are now more than 3.5 billion mobile internet subscribers globally, representing 47pc of the world’s population. However, adoption has not been equitable, with mobile internet adoption currently standing at 24pc in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region also accounts for 40pc of the global population not covered by a mobile broadband network.

It is not yet clear how long the current situation will last, but we do know that it could take several years before life returns to what it was before the pandemic.

If this is the case, then, it means that we have got to find a way of sustaining food production especially focusing on the smallholder families who account for nearly 75 pc of the world’s food production.

Technology and digital solutions are going to be an integral part of building sustainable food production, otherwise, countries will not only have the pandemic to deal with but food crisis to tackle.

Now that digital solutions have demonstrated that they can ably keep farmers in the gardens and help limit movements and achieve social distancing to lower the spread of the virus, governments must work towards building an eco-system that will drive adoption and use of these platforms.

In the short-term, this may require suspending taxes on social media platforms that are becoming important sources of market information for farmers, removing taxes on low-cost smartphones, removing taxes on bulk payments to facilitate person to person, person to business and business to person payments; providing tax incentives to telecom companies to improve network coverage in rural areas and deploying some of the stimulus resources to telecoms to improve rural infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building of farmers on how to use mobile money and other digital platforms.

This might be the best opportunity we have to digitize value chains and move towards formalizing the agriculture sector.


Nathan is an Access to Finance specialist at the World Bank Group.

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