Digitalizing African Agriculture: Paving the way to Africa’s Progress Through Transforming the Agriculture Sector

Posted on News & Updates, October 24, 2019

AGRF2019 discussed digital transformation as key driver of sustainable food systems in Africa

By Simret Yasabu and Jerome Bossuet

This year’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), which took place from September 3-6, 2019 in Accra, Ghana, focused on the potential of digital agriculture to transform the African agriculture through innovations such as precision agriculture solutions for smallholder farmers, access to mobile financial services, data-driven agriculture, and ICT-enabled extension.

Committed to a digital transformation of African agricultural that benefits many, not a few.

The CGIAR has become a new partner of the AGRF and was presenting during the forum its five global challenges: planetary boundaries, sustaining food availability, promoting equality of opportunity, securing public health, and creating jobs and growth.

Despite its importance of the continental economy and untapped resources, African farming sector is still dominated by ageing smallholders cultivating few acres of cropland, using not much inputs and lagging far behind productivity world standards.  

Many experts believe digital agriculture could help African agriculture leapfrog to overcome its geographical, social and economic bottlenecks, bringing successful technologies to scale faster, and market opportunities even for remote smallholders. Some countries like Ghana or Kenya are becoming digital hubs for agritech-savvy young entrepreneurs along the food value chains, from drone for Ag, linking farmers to the marketplace, or offering mobile mechanization or financial services.

Large initiatives were announced to foster this growth potential, in particular towards the youth in agriculture, like the Mastercard Foundation’s commitment to invest US $500 million to support for young agripreneurs within its Young Africa Works initiative, and the World Bank’s One Million Farmer platform in Kenya.

In force at the AGRF 2019, agricultural research organizations such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have a strong role to play in this digital transformation, both as innovator creating for instance new digital maize phenotyping tool for faster yield assessment, and user of tech innovations to improve research targeting and impact.

Improving smallholders’ resilience through digital innovations

The millions of African rainfed farmers are in a risky business, from rising climate shocks to emerging pests and diseases like the invasive fall armyworm or the maize lethal necrosis. CIMMYT Director General, Dr. Martin Kropff highlighted the importance of digital tools to predict these risks through smart, scalable early warning systems like the award-winning diagnostic tool Marple that helps map wheat rust outbreaks. Researchers can also better predict the farms’ responses to these risks through accurate modelling. They can for instance better assess the potential yield benefits of drought and heat tolerance under different climate change scenarios.

CIMMYT crop breeders use tablet-based disease scoring applications and test new imagery and high-tech sensors for more accurate and cost-effective data collection. Kropff underlined the key role digital tools play to speed up science breakthroughs and impact delivery at the farm level.

Tailored advice for farmers and policy-makers to enable sustainable intensification

‘’The future is no longer where it used to be. Farmers’ reality has become even more unpredictable’’, said Mr. Enock Chikava, deputy director, agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation during a vivid debate on how to reshape the future agronomic research so it delivers more site-specific and responsive advice.

Much of the agronomy work within the region remains fragmented across research institutes, commodities and projects, and struggles to go beyond blanket recommendations that are most of the time not adapted to local farming conditions.

However, there is a fast-growing wealth of georeferenced data that can describe the diverse farming landscapes and socio-economic context of each African smallholder farmer. The starting point to exploit these data and get the right solutions for each farmer is to ask the right questions.

Moderated by Samuel Gameda, CIMMYT soil scientist, who shared the lessons from the Taking Maize Agronomy to Scale (TAMASA) project, this session on Agronomy @Scale discussed what public information goods like crop yield prediction maps or extension apps e.g. the maize variety selector would be the most useful for farmers and large-scale agronomic initiatives to trigger this much needed sustainable intensification of millions of African smallholdings. What investments would make a difference to scale the use of these new decision-support tools?

‘’Agronomic research must be carried out from a broader perspective of large-scale relevance and application. It is also more and more a joint effort and responsibility between smallholder farmers, the research community and public and private sectors, with each component playing specific and interacting roles. The current era of powerful and accessible ICT tools and big data analytics make this much more feasible and should be incorporated to enable precision agronomy for all, this is my take home message’’ said Samuel Gameda.

‘’This data revolution will only work if we invest in research data quality and data management’’, stressed Bram Govaerts, CIMMYT’s Integrated Development Programme director. ‘’That will generate better evidence for decision-makers to guide impact investment plans, deciding on which technology e.g. a new drought-tolerant crop variety and put the money in the right leveraging point’’, Govaerts concluded.  The largest forum on African agriculture, AGRF 2019 gathered more than 2,200 delegates and high-level dignitaries, from heads of State and government officials to leaders of global and regional development institutions; top agrifood businesses and local agri-preneurs ; financial institutions; mobile network operators and tech leaders, as well as lead representatives of farmer organizations. The next AGRF edition will take place in Kigali, Rwanda.

Innovation, partnerships and knowledge for African farmers meet at AGRF 2018

Posted on News & Updates, October 24, 2019

KIGALI, Rwanda (CIMMYT) — The African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) is the place to be for organizations interested in Africa’s agricultural development. Research institutions, development agencies, funders, farmers’ organizations, large agribusinesses and green start-ups came together for the latest edition of this event in Kigali, Rwanda, on September 4-8. Organized by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) since 2010, this year’s theme was “Lead. Measure. Grow.”

The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, recalled a sentence stuck in his memory since childhood: “Everything is agriculture, the rest is good luck”. All the top leaders present at AGRF 2018 agreed that investing in smallholder agriculture is a top development priority, since the growth of the primary sector “drives down poverty, two to four times faster than other sectors” and provides livelihoods for three quarters of the African population.

Are advisory apps a solution for collecting Big Data?

Posted on News & Updates, October 24, 2019

By Jens Andersson, Jordan Chamberlin and Peter Craufurd

NAIROBI (Kenya) — Agronomic researchers face several challenges and limitations related to data. To provide accurate predictions and useful advice to smallholder farmers, scientists need to collect many types of on-farm data; for example, field size, area devoted to each crop, inputs used, agronomic practices followed, incidence of pests and diseases, and yield.

These pieces of data are expensive to obtain by traditional survey methods, such as sending out enumerators to ask farmers a long list of questions. Thus collected data is often restricted to a particular geographical area and may not capture key factors of production variability, like local soil characteristics, fertilizer timing or crop rotations.

As a result, such datasets cannot deliver yield predictions at scale, one of the main expectations of Big Data. Digital advisory apps may be part of the solution, as they use crowdsourcing to routinize data collection on key agronomic variables.

The Taking Maize Agronomy to Scale in Africa (TAMASA) project has been has been using mobile apps in research on how to provide more site and farmer specific agronomic advice to farmers through agro-dealers, extension workers and other service providers.  

At CIMMYT, one of the research questions we were interested in was “Why are plant population densities in farmers fields usually well below recommended rates?” From surveys and yield estimates based on crop-cut samples at harvest in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, we observed that yields were correlated with plant density.

We thought that farmers may buy too little seeds for their maize fields. One possible reason for this could be that farmers do not know the size of their maize field. Another reason could be that farmers and agro-dealers may not know how many seeds are in a packet, as companies rarely indicate it and the weight of each seed variety is different. Or perhaps farmers do not know what plant population density is best to use. Seed packets sometimes suggest a sowing rate but this advice is rather generic and assumes that farmers apply recommended fertilizer rates. However, farmers’ field conditions differ, as does their capacity to invest in expensive fertilizers.

We therefore developed a simple app, Maize-Seed-Area. It enables farmers, agro-dealers and extension workers to measure the size of a maize field,  to generate advice on plant spacing and density, or to calculate how much seed to buy. It can also provide information on seed varieties available at markets nearby.

View of the interface of the Maize-Seed-Area app on mobile phones and tablets.

View of the interface of the Maize-Seed-Area app on mobile phones and tablets.

Maize-Seed-Area was developed using the Open Data Kit (ODK) format, which allows offline data collection and to submit it when internet connection becomes available. In this case, the app was also used to deliver information to the end users.

Advisory apps usually require some input data from farmers, so advice can be tailored to their particular circumstances. For example, Farmers might need to provide data on the slope of their field, previous crops or fertilizer use in order to generate a plant density advice. In addition to such input data, some other information may be collected through the app, such as previous seed variety use. All this data entered by the user, which should be kept to a minimum, is routinely captured by the app and retrieved later.

Hello, Big Data!

As the app user community grows, datasets on farmer practices and outcomes grow as well. In this case, we can observe trends in real time, for instance on the popularity of different maize varieties.

In a pilot in western Kenya, in collaboration with Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), some 100 agro-dealers and extension workers used the app to give advice to about 2,900 farmers. Most of the advice was on the amount of seed to buy for a given area and on the characteristics of different varieties.

Data showed that the previous year farmers grew a wide range of varieties, but that three of them were dominant: DK8031, Duma43 and WH505. Collected within just 2 months prior to planting, this data became available as soon as the users connected to the internet. Most of the them have kept the app for future use.

Preferred variety of maize of farmers advised with Maize-Seed-Area app. in western Kenya (Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega and Siaya counties), February-March 2018

Preferred variety of maize of farmers advised with Maize-Seed-Area app. in western Kenya (Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega and Siaya counties), February-March 2018.

A phone survey among some 300 of the farmers who received advice found that most of them anticipated to do things differently in the future, ranging from asking for advice again (37 percent), growing a different maize variety (31 percent), buying a different quantity of seed (19 percent), using different plant spacing (18 percent) or using more fertilizer (16 percent).

The Maize-Seed-Area pilot shows that advisory apps, when used widely, are a major source of new Big Data on agronomic practices and farmer preferences. They also help to make data collection easier and cheaper.

Jordan Chamberlin, Spatial Economist at CIMMYT, will give his insights on best practices on electronic data capture on October 4, 2018.


Posted on News & Updates, October 21, 2019

The current R&D landscape, particularly in agronomy, is characterized by blanket recommendations, poor availability, and limited use of spatial data. There are few options for rapid and cost-effective data collection, the result being that agronomy remains experiential, rather than predictive, and that site-specific knowledge cannot be shared or easily scaled out.

Helping millions of maize farmers across sub-Saharan Africa achieve greater yields and incomes through the provision of farm-specific agronomic advice

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