I recently returned from a short holiday in Arusha, Tanzania. Despite having worked in agriculture and travelled throughout Africa for the past 5 years, I was once again struck anew by the glaring reality that effects rural livelihoods and agricultural development in the continent. Like a broken record I could not stop myself from repeating the question, ‘When will relevant technological developments truly start impacting tangible development in Africa?’
In the past decade agtech has been benefiting from a steady increase in popularity among the global investment communities (as has the agricultural industry overall). Investors are beginning to understand that there exists a vast potential for hi-tech to transform agriculture low-tech.
Despite this, technology development and effective technology transfer and adoption thereof are not synonymous with one another (as Ruan pointed out in his blog, Is mobile innovation Africa’s agricultural silver bullet?). Despite the efforts of industry (like IBM and Google) to establish investment hubs in Africa (Kenya and South Africa) for the purposes of both fostering innovation and attracting investment, thus far the majority of investment into agtech has been focused on solutions that solve the problems of the minority and not the majority. This means that advancement is taking place primarily in the already existing precision agricultural industry, pioneered in the early 90’s through the mass adoption of geospatial mechanisation tools.
Large scale investments into agtech in the past 5 years have, to date, been centered around the traditional hi-tech centres, with a focus on the US, Israel, New Zealand and to an extent Europe and Australia. The year 2014 saw a leap forward in the introduction of agtech incubators and funding platforms, examples include platforms like AgFunder and Innovation Endeavors, (which promotes amongst other things Eric Shmidts Farm2050 initiative). By August of last year it was reported that more than $401m had been invested into 35 AgTech companies in the US (a large portion of which was still focused on biotech).
Although the above is good news for the industry overall, one needs to take a step back and critically assess if all this development is truly going to contribute so solving our 2050 food security woes, or if today, it is simply widening the gap between the minority and the majority in the global agriculture community?
Gulf News this week published an article highlighting this, where it outlined India’s potential (due to its vast hi-tech experience) to transform its society through the adoption of digital technology by industries that most impact on the masses, of which agriculture is one such industry. ‘There is a lot for Indian entrepreneurs to learn from Silicon Valley. But the bigger opportunities are for them to leapfrog it by solving the problems of the many rather than of the few.‘
Understandably the same is true in Africa, yet whereas India has a burgeoning hi-tech economy, Africa does not, and it will take a lot more than the promotion of local innovation to ensure that agtech has a sustainable place in the development of agriculture in Africa. What is truly required is substantial strategic investment into relevant agricultural solutions that are not simply tailored to but designed with Africa in mind. Furthermore there is a dire need for governments and corporate institutions to invest in the promotion of a longterm adoptation of affordable agtech by both commercial and rural farmers in Africa.
One such example of a company whose thinking of the needs of the masses first by teaming up with local mobile operators is nFrnds, whose slogan is ‘Connecting the Unconnected. Today!’. This is a company whose relatively simple, yet ingenius USSD based technology software facilitates complex application like functionality on simple phones without the need for mobile data. Dorron Mottes, founder and CEO, believes that more than 80% of users (especially agricultural users) are using simple phones. In Africa data is still horrendously expensive and the introduction of a technology that allows industry to reach remotely located farmers at an affordable price is according to Dorron, proving to be a game changer.
nFrnds has chosen to focus on a number of key verticals, including agriculture which it does through its mAgri platform. nFrnds is currently live on 4 Pan-African networks with a total reach of 260m subscribers. Its mAgri service is currently live in Kenya, where for example, mAgri enables farmers to receive loans via their simple mobile phones, whilst significantly reducing the cost of contract and interest rates through a negotiated service with local banks.
The company recently partnered with Microsoft as one of the leading technology solutions to be delivered to Microsofts clients via its 4Afrika initiative.
Many in the industry today talk about the convergence of hi-tech and agtech as the true Green Revolution, yet the reality remains that unless we can make the revolution relevant to and accessible by all, we may in 2030 or even 2040 be no closer to true food security than we are today.
Connecting the Unconnected. Today!
nFrnds is a platform developed by VascoDe Technologies that enables low-cost user interaction without the need for internet access or SMS, thereby connecting borrowers, lenders, retailers, and customers, and bringing social networking & email services to mobile phone users in emerging markets.