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Can Tech Solve African Agriculture's Four Big Problems?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, April 15 2013

Screengrab from Kilimo Salama promotional video.

A recent BBC article highlighted three of the tech-heavy startups trying to change the game in Africa's agriculture sector, including a franchise that gives farmers access to higher quality products, a crop insurance scheme that makes it easier for farmers to get credit, and an SMS service through which farmers can check market prices and coordinate with other farmers to buy supplies in bulk. As observed in the article, these tech solutions try to leapfrog over basic infrastructure problems – like bad roads and inefficient communications. Considering the fact that 80 percent of the arable land in Africa is not being used, tech has an awful lot to make up for.

Technology directly contributes about 7 percent to Africa's GDP, higher than the worldwide average. A report by the World Bank and the African Development Bank in December 2012 explains that is because mobile phones provide access to services that are easily available in traditional, non-tech forms in the developed world, such as financial services, newspapers and entertainment. The same report identifies four sectors in which technology can make up for other infrastructure failings: market information, agriculture insurance, irrigation efficiency and traceability.

The BBC mentions M-Farm, a SMS program previously covered by techPresident through which farmers can check market prices and even coordinate with other farmers in order to buy supplies in bulk. There is also the mobile information service Esoko, developed by Ghana-based BusyLab. Weekly advisory services from Esoko include market prices, weather, news and tips.

The crop insurance scheme Kilimo Salama, “safe farming” in Swahili, is spreading across Kenya and Rwanda. A Christian Science Monitor article reports they just signed on their 100,000th policyholder. One farmer told the Monitor he signed up after an earlier drought destroyed an entire year of crops and left him nearly broke: “When I lost part of my crop to drought in 2011, I was compensated, which meant I was still able to pay school fees, buy seeds for a new crop, and keep food on the table for my family. . . It has given me peace of mind, so I invest without fear of losing everything to risks that are beyond my control.”

Kilimo Salama works in part because the farmer pays only a small premium, a percentage of what is spent on seeds. However, other useful technologies like solar-powered irrigation systems are expensive investments, and 380,000 shillings ($4,500 dollars) can be cost-prohibitive to smallholder farmers.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.