Rural subsistence farmers in Africa face various challenges daily that make the work especially difficult. For one, most of Africa is lacking in adequate infrastructure for a successful trade network, which makes moving harvests difficult in general. Additionally, there is a lack of accessible banking options for farmers which makes saving whatever money earned practically impossible. Beyond this, there is little infrastructure for irrigation or energy, which are essential to a productive farm. Although these problems are being addressed by certain African governments, the progress is slow and each country is moving at their own pace.
In the past years, Mobile Information and Communication Technologies—also known as ICT—are stepping into the space in order to assist farmers work around the challenges listed above and more. In this post, we will go over some of the most prominent challenges facing farmers in Africa and how ICT are aiding these individuals to provide a sustainable livelihood for themselves.
Challenges for the Rural Farmer in Africa
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN details some of the challenges of subsistence farmers in Africa. They are, as a whole, food insecure, living in poverty or extreme poverty; they have limited access to education and markets, they use family labor for agricultural activities, and they tend to participate in the informal economy. Their land is usually smallholdings, and at least half of women farmers do not own their land. The most immediate effects of these challenges are on the health of the family, the education of the children, and limited access to participate in formal financial systems.
Information and communication technology organizations have developed mobile applications—like mobile wallets and other emerging financial technologies—that can run on all mobile phone types, which have begun providing farmers with access to very basic banking. This is spurring a critical move from the informal to the formal economy for these farmers. It is such an instrumental shift because access to banking allows farmers to establish legal identity, open bank accounts, begin saving money, and access microinsurance and microcredit.
With access to savings, insurance, and credit, farmers can take better care of their farms. Credit can be used for soil amendments and livestock purchases for example. Insurance can protect the farmer in case of a drought, and savings can soften the blow of a low-yield harvest.
New financial technologies, powered by mobile phones and apps, have allowed microfinance companies to move into rural areas without traditional transportation infrastructure as well as begin to bring financial services to vulnerable, excluded populations, which is changing the agricultural industry in Africa as a whole.
Climate change and drought
Climate change and drought remain significant challenges to the agricultural sector in Africa. While climate change is only one of the factors impacting the current drought cycle in Africa, the impacts of global warming on fragile regions has the potential to bring long term desertification and devastating famine to these regions.
Drought, responsible for 80% of the crop failure in sub-Saharan Africa, impacts agriculture through both changes in rain, weather patterns, and evaporation of groundwater resources. Climate change worsens drought by increasing the evaporation of groundwater, impacting groundwater resources such as aquifers, and changes in patterns of rain that keep soil from holding water long enough to grow food.
ICT companies have developed mobile phone applications that are basic enough to work on any mobile phone type. Through these applications, organizations are able to reach rural farmers remotely with information on how to protect and grow their crops despite unpredictable weather patterns or drought conditions. This information is extremely valuable to farmers struggling to save their harvest and investment.
Information sent to farmers through these mobile apps can be varied based on the location of the farmer and the conditions the farmer is experiencing. Examples of topics include techniques for growing through a drought, new options for drought-resistant seeds, amendments to improve the water carrying ability of the soil, techniques for the proper storage and shipping of food, technical information on agriculture typically inaccessible by the farmers, etc. Access to information such as this is revolutionary to a farmer in Africa and is instrumental in building up food security and alleviating poverty in the continent.
Gender inequality remains problematic in Africa, despite advances such as Kenya’s new constitution that allows land ownership and inheritance for women. At this time, half of women farmers do not own their land. Not having access to the title of land means they do not have any collateral to access financial services, such as drought insurance or credit to improve irrigation and soil health. Many women in rural Africa do not have any formal identification, such as birth certificates or government identification cards. This precludes their ability to access formal financial systems. Without land ownership, they cannot join farming cooperatives, access transportation resources to get food to market, or take advantage of education programs offered to regional farmers.
The most immediate and significant impact of these gender-based social systems is that women cannot participate in the free market. Without access to transportation and cooperatives, they have to sell their crops to local middlemen and others who travel to them. Without access to knowledge of current crop prices, they take what is offered. Many farmers have to guarantee the sale of a crop at a set price in order to be advanced seed and soil amendments at the beginning of the growing season.
Social support is now available to these afflicted women due to mobile ICT. Mobile applications have been developed that connect these women with information on how to combat gender-based obstacles for female African farmers. The apps equip female farmers in Africa with the knowledge they need to solve their own issues such as how to obtain legal identity and how to apply for land ownership– all delivered to a small device in the palm of their hands.
Access to markets
Access to markets is the most critical factor for subsistence farmers that can be directly impacted in a number of ways by the use of mobile information and communications technologies. Information about transportation availability, the state of the roads, proper storage, packing, and shipping, current prices across a region, and other types of critical information can be accessed immediately by farmers through mobile apps developed by ICT organizations. This access to information about market prices, road conditions, etc. is crucial for farmers to get valuable profit out of their yields.
ICT technologies are an innovative solution to continent-wide issues for farmers in Africa and the future of ICT for farming is now. The rate of change in the industry is accelerating. New technology is opening avenues of communication and services for those in geographically and socially isolated regions. One critical piece, however, is ensuring that those working in development and planning have access to the most accurate and up to date information.
By using mobile phones that are already in the hands of farmers across rural Africa, GeoPoll can gather granular information from farmers themselves. The resulting insights can assist developers, researchers, and analysts produce even more effective strategies for using ICT to develop the agricultural industry in Africa. For this purpose, GeoPoll recently released an extensive report containing data specific to agriculture in Kenya. To conduct a similar study for your organization, contact us today!