Africa > East Africa > Tanzania > Raising the bar on agricultural innovation

Tanzania: Raising the bar on agricultural innovation

2013/04/13

Technological innovation, particularly in mobile, will be critical to improving agricultural productivity, but R&D funding must be ramped up next years of neglect

At the same time as Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, told the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) that world people increase meant food production would have to increase by 70 % by 2050, using the same amount of water, he identified agricultural innovation as the key to solving the problem.

With world efforts to improve fertiliser quality, harvesting technology and water resources, what role can R&D and mobile communications play in transforming agriculture in Africa?

“Mobile technology can radically transform smallholder farmers’ access to critical and timely data,” says Fiona Smith, mAgri programme director at GSMA, an association of mobile operators. “New mAgriculture services being developed allow farmers to call a helpline and get advice from an agriculture extension service provider or receive personalised daily agriculture alerts through SMS or voicemail. They can exchange up-to-date data on pests and diseases, seed and input varieties, weather, market prices and so on. In a lot of African nations, agricultural extension agents are stretched to service up to 4,000 farmers each, which results in long delays between visits. Mobile phones provide a complementary way to reach farmers with timely and personalised data.”

In Nigeria, Nokia is active in this area with Nokia Life, a phone-based data service that provides updates tailored to the subscriber’s needs, such as weather reports; advice on at the same time as to sow crops, use fertiliser and harvest; and current prices for crops and fish.

Meanwhile, Sustainable Harvest, an Oregon-based coffee importer, has rolled out mobile-based technology to farmers across Latin America and Africa. Its Relationship Data Tracking System collects coffee data, inclunding data on where coffee was washed, dried and stored, to help smallholder producers increase their cooperative’s competitiveness and transparency. It has piloted the technology with the Kilicafe cooperative in Tanzania.

“By tracking key data, starting from individual farmers, Kilicafe received the data it needed to maximise the availability of their highest quality coffees and identify areas for quality development in general,” says Pam Kahl, director of communications at Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers.

“To date the programme has registered almost 3,400 farmers and tracked 131,485 kilograms of coffee – $170,472-worth – amount using the RITS Producer system. Additionally, we found that RITS Producer reduced the time spent collecting data for grower certification schemes by 65 %.”

Mobile technology is playing a role too, with mBanking and mPayments revolutionising the way people send and receive money. Additional sophisticated financial services are emerging, which allow rural citizens to make and receive payments without travelling long distances or carrying lots of cash.

The implactions are huge, GSMA’s Ms Smith says. “Formerly, the majority of smallholder farmers lacked access to financial services. Input suppliers are presently able to collect and manage payments from farmers; in turn farmers can accumulation their request for inputs. Large buyers can pay thousands of producers. Governments and development agencies can distribute vouchers for fertiliser, seeds or other inputs,” she explains.

“For example, the Nigerian government provides fertiliser vouchers to 10 million of the poorest farmers in the country via mobile phones. Weather-indexed micro-insurance allows them to insure the cost of their input supply purchases against the risk of bad weather and the payouts are provided through their mobile phone.”

“Mobile gave birth to mobile money and this is feeding into areas such as mAgriculture, mHealth and mInsurance,” agrees Gavin Krugel, chief customer strategy officer at Fundamo, the technology company. “What we’re seeing is the unintended consequence of mobile money: people in rural areas are presently using it to receive payments, as start-up capital for their agricultural businesses and even for crop insurance.”

NGOs, governments and banks still play an significant role. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s minister of agriculture and rural development, has said publicly that banks should diversify their current agricultural portfolio to meet the needs of the sector. He adds that agricultural lending is currently heavily skewed to agribusinesses, while smallholders, commercial farmers and other small and medium-sized enterprises are unable to access affordable financing.

“The time has come for Nigeria to consider raising long-term bonds to finance the agricultural sector. The rising domestic deficit is certainly of concern. However, this should not be used to argue against agriculture bonds. A lot of nations in the world are using the so-called green bonds to power their agriculture, inclunding China and India,” he says.

NGOs are as well playing a role. Researchers from Michigan National University in the US, for example, are using a $7.8m grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help eight African nations improve their sustainable farming methods. Over the next four years, the team will work with 10 African universities, institutes and ministries to promote effective government strategies that help local farmers become additional productive and food fasten. They as well aim to improve the capacity of national policy institutes to guide and support their own nations’ agriculture ministries and from presently on to accept and manage international grants.

The emergence of mobile applications is as well helping to fuel a additional tech-savvy workforce in Africa. “This is enabling better uptake of new ideas, additional localisation of agency work, and additional innovation through the local private sector that is increasing market options and employment,” says Shaun Ferris, senior technical advisor agriculture and environment, at Catholic Relief Services. “This is amount fertile ground for R&D products and processes.”

“Next a decade of stagnation during the 1990s, investment and human resource capacity in sub-Saharan Africa’s public agricultural R&D increased by additional than 20 % between 2001 and 2008,” says Nienke Beintema, chief of the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative, which is facilitated by the International Food Policy Research Institute. But most of this increase occurred in a handful of nations and was largely the result of increased government commitments to boost very low salaries and replace neglected infrastructure. It did not translate into additional funds for research.

“Agricultural research and development projects in sub-Saharan Africa are still heavily dependent on donor funding and agricultural, science, technology and innovation systems are weak,” says Judith Francis, senior programme coordinator, Science and Technology Policy, at the ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).

Ms Beintema adds: “Private sector participation in agricultural R&D remains fairly limited in sub-Saharan Africa, and only a few companies operate their own research programmes, most of them in South Africa.” Although there has been an increase in agricultural R&D, she says governments should address persistent underinvestment.

“This should comprise increased long-term and consistent levels of funding to agricultural R&D. Nations with critical capacity gaps will need to address the high turnover of agricultural scientists through a series of measures. They as well need to develop innovative means of training to build sufficient human resources for agricultural R&D inclunding improving take-up of existing technologies. National universities as well have a role to play.”

There may be reason for optimism, Catholic Relief Services’ Mr Ferris says: “Given the complex nature of how R&D support changes, each of the R&D partners is steadily improving their methods and means of providing solutions. They are amount getting to grips with the additional modern communications in Africa, which is a very transformational process.” 

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