Building block with potential

Issue 86 - spring 2020

Heike Baumüller, senior scientist at the Center for Development Research ZEF at the University of Bonn, on the trend towards agricultural apps for Africa's small farmers.

Heike Baumüller, ZEF University of Bonn
Hundreds of apps have already been developed for Africa's small farmers. Does this change agriculture?

Baumüller: Little has yet been researched into the impact of apps on agricultural productivity. Many of the providers are start-ups that do not share their data, which means that there is hardly any transparency. However, some of the few impact studies have shown that small farmers use apps to make better decisions about what to grow, when, and when to harvest. And an application is not a special agricultural service, but it has changed the lives of many farmers: the money transaction via mobile phone. The Kenyan payment system M-Pesa was really revolutionary here, because it facilitates access to finance, family support, purchases and sales. Mobile payment is also an element of many agricultural apps today.

Who develops agricultural apps?

Baumüller: A lot is driven by private companies and business angels. A number of start-ups come from Africa itself. The hot spot for this is East Africa and above all Kenya. In West Africa, Ghana has a dynamic scene, while Senegal and Ivory Coast are on the rise. The sector is still quite young and you shouldn't be blinded by the beautiful websites of many providers. According to a study from 2019, only 20 out of around 400 apps were able to achieve a high range. I also have the impression that everyone now wants to offer their own app, like international agricultural research institutes or NGOs. The motto seems: It is better to develop your own service than to strengthen and scale what works. Another trend that I can get more out of is the emergence of platforms. These integrate different services such as weather services and financing and make them accessible via a single access.

What are the challenges facing app developers?

Baumüller: There are many hurdles. Farmers living in the countryside are neither a wealthy clientele nor easy to reach. In order to be profitable, sooner or later a service has to go mass. In addition, it is not enough to inform users about an app. You have to empower them to use the information in their own context. This is anything but trivial. Farmers also have to trust a service. Because if they rely on the wrong fertilizer or the wrong cultivation method based on advice, their existence can be at stake. Perhaps it would be more expedient not always to seek direct communication with the small farmers. You could also enable agricultural advisors, for example, to use digital technologies to better support farmers.

So are agricultural apps overrated?

Baumüller: Some fear that technology in agriculture heralds the end of smallholders, others consider it the panacea. The subject polarizes. In any case, many services can only develop their potential if they are accompanied by other measures. If, for example, a farmer finds out via an app how much she would get for her coffee beans in the city, but does not make it there due to the lack of transport options, the information does little to help her. The best digital technologies will not trigger a development leap if a country neglects its agricultural sector. You can see that in Nigeria, which has a dynamic start-up scene. However, little happens in the agricultural sector because issues such as land rights, access to finance and resources or market connectivity are not dealt with sufficiently. Technology is ideally part of a broad agricultural strategy. And here the discussion shouldn't be limited to apps. It is important to develop value chains in their entirety and to make them transparent, for example, with blockchain technologies and big data. There is still a lot of potential for Africa and its small farmers!

Vielen Dank für das Gespräch!

Photo: provided

To the main story

Target group Small farmers Digital agriculture is also on the rise in Africa.

Digital tools for small farmers

Higher yields, more income and thus more development: digital technologies are intended to transform Africa's largest economic sector - smallholder agriculture - and thus make it more powerful.