By Vittoria Acampora
The sub-Saharan region in Africa is still struggling in the realms of digitalization and food security, and it remains the least digitalized and technologically developed continent. Despite the different challenges, there is a growing wave of innovation and transformation across the region. Digitalization and implementation of technological transformation in the agriculture field are valuable ways to improve the lives of small farmers and the majority of the African population.
Among the challenges that slow down the digital transformation, the limited access to online information and services because of Internet shutdowns imposed by local governments represent a tangible barrier, together with the high costs for internet access. Furthermore, digital colonialism caused by authoritarian regimes can slow down innovation, as well as privacy violations and the marginalization or neglect of vulnerable communities. Within this context, the understandable decision of many to prioritize fundamental necessities like housing, healthcare, or sustenance over digitalization development can slow down the adoption of digital technologies.
Several innovations have already been undertaken to advance digitalization in some African countries. Firstly, there has been significant progress in integrating Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into various sectors: the introduction of communication platforms has fostered greater connectivity and facilitated the exchange of information. Furthermore, tech hubs have emerged and are increasing their diffusion across the region, mostly in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Significant innovations have materialized in the telecommunication, e-government, mobile money, and e-commerce sectors: these advancements have translated into more accessible services, improved governance, and broader financial inclusion.
For instance, Kenya's e-government initiatives, exemplified by projects like "eCitizen" and "Growing Smarter", are driving local economic development, enhancing digital government services, and promoting sustainable mobility. A focus on "Smart Cities" is also evident, with ongoing projects often initiated with the support of agencies such as UN-Habitat. In Nigeria, the project "Smart Cities and Innovation for Enhanced Local Governance" is using data systems, Geographic Information Systems, and digital technology to improve governance and planning. In Somalia, the "Smart Cities" project is developing digital policies and frameworks to improve the quality of life for urban communities.
The diffusion of social media is also facilitating the exchange of information which is particularly useful in situations where traditional media are controlled by authoritarian regimes. Lastly, innovations in agricultural technology are starting to revolutionize farming practices, leading to increased productivity and improved food security. Agriculture plays an important role in Sub-Saharan Africa's economy, contributing nearly 20% to the GDP and employing about 50% of the workforce. However, the region faces challenges in improving agricultural productivity and efficiency. One of these challenges is the prevalence of small-scale farming, with around 80% of African farmers operating on limited plots of land, collectively accounting for 40% of cultivated areas.
Another barrier regards productivity gaps; factors such as limited access to credit, insurance challenges, information disparities, high transaction costs, and imperfections in labour and land markets obstruct agricultural growth and efficiency. Additionally, the region heavily relies on rainfall for crop cultivation, with minimal land equipped for irrigation, adding vulnerability to climate variability. Addressing these multifaceted constraints necessitates the development of customized technologies, infrastructure improvements, and reductions in input costs. Amid these challenges, there are ongoing and already established projects: in Uganda, UN-Habitat is developing a project focusing on land tenure security, scaling up community-based land registration, and supporting urban land interventions to enhance land governance. In Kenya, it is already settled the “M-farm” project which provides digital soil maps that contribute to the enhancement of agricultural practices like cultivation, harvesting and the sale of agricultural products.
The digitalization of agriculture plays a fundamental role in Sub-Saharan Africa: digital tools can provide essential knowledge, access to markets, and information on weather, pests, and diseases. These tools can range from mobile consultations to advanced hardware like drones and sensors, which can fill the information gap and increase productivity. As access to mobile networks and the internet continues to expand in rural areas, farmers can leverage these technologies to improve their farming practices.
Sub-Saharan Africa is in a transformation phase, embracing digitalization and agricultural innovation to address long-standing challenges. While obstacles remain, the ongoing projects and achievements are paving the way for a more prosperous and sustainable future in the region. As digital technologies become increasingly accessible, they hold the promise of revolutionizing agriculture and improving the quality of life for millions across the continent. The development and the spread of digitalization in Sub-Saharan Africa would lead to progress in agriculture techniques, which would lead to a better quality of life.
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