Data, Digital Technology: Driving Africa Forward

Digital technology took center stage at last week’s 2016 World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Kigali, Rwanda from May 13-15. The theme of the forum was “Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation,” a topic that is becoming more and more important as Africa’s growing population continues to put pressure on the region’s agricultural sector, food supply, and natural resources. A recent World Economic Forum article states that agricultural growth can be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors; the incorporation of new digital technologies into agricultural programs have been shown to accelerate this growth, making them an important pathway for policymakers to consider when looking at food security and poverty reduction.

According to a blog post released by the World Economic Forum in the lead-up to last week’s event, though, Africa still lags behind the rest of the world in terms of basic technological infrastructure; only 20 percent of Africans have internet access, and electrical connections remain similarly low in many countries. In Zambia, for example, only 50 percent of the population has access to electricity; in Burundi, this number falls to 17 percent. Despite this gap, however, the blog suggests that the current explosion in digital technology use in agriculture (the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”) holds tremendous potential for Africa’s future development, given the proper investments and policies.

By 2050, the youngest populations in the world will reside in Africa, according to the UN’s 2015 World Population Prospects; this burgeoning young population will require increased educational and job opportunities, particularly for women.

To stimulate job growth, policymakers should focus on investing in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which represent a huge source of employment globally; according to the post, SMEs represent 78 percent of jobs in low-income countries around the world. Creating a proper enabling environment for such businesses to thrive – including investing in physical and technological infrastructure to ensure their access to lucrative markets, increasing access to credit and other financial tools, and investing in an educated workforce – will be key in helping SMEs drive innovation and economic development in the region.

The digital revolution, and the data that drives it, will also require investment in national statistics offices to modernize and increase data collection, management, and analysis, according to another World Economic Forum article released this week. In particular, cell phone metadata and geospatial images will be particularly important for Africa. Cell phones are a relatively low cost technology, and cell phone usage is relatively high in the region, with at least 50 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people in 45 out of Africa’s 54 countries. In fact, cell phone usage has exceeded the global average in 22 of those countries, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This makes collecting, and disseminating, data via cell phone a good option for policymakers and researchers in the region.

The potential for cell phones to provide production, market, and weather information to farmers (through SMS messaging, voice messaging, and digital apps) has been well documented (see this blog post about the topic in the 2013 Global Food Policy Report). However, it is crucial that such information be relevant, useful, and understandable to the farmers it intends to reach. A 2015 article in World Development finds that the number of farmers in Ethiopia using cell phones to inform their marketing decisions is relatively small, due in large part to a lack of relevant market price information disseminated through cell phones.  This finding highlights the fact that access to technology, in and of itself, is not enough; that technology must provide information and services that are of use to smallholder farmers on a practical level.

Geospatial data, like the sort collected by HarvestChoice and highlighted on the SSA FSP’s homepage map, allows researchers and policymakers to get a detailed look at poverty, hunger, agricultural production, and other important development indicators at the local and even household level.

Despite the constraints they faced in terms of both content and coverage, data-driven technologies are powerful tools with vast potential to drive economic and social development in Africa. Policymakers, private sector actors, and international development organizations all have a role to play in encouraging and investing in the growth of these technologies in the region. However, the most important driving force for technological innovation, the World Economic Forum emphasizes, will be Africans themselves.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: Erik (HASH) Hersman