Knowledge for Development

Unlocking the Promise of ICTs for Transforming Agriculture in Africa

Author: Towela Nyirenda-Jere, Programmes Manager, NEPAD e-Africa Commission, CSIR, Pretoria, South Africa

Date: 17/08/2010


In her article, the author explores the ways that ICTs can transform agriculture in Africa. She draws attention to the current status of ICTs in Africa and the promises they hold, such as the staggering growth of mobile phone use, the halting expansion of the fixed-line telephone network and the disappointing growth of internet access. She argues that ICTs could facilitate the creation of networks locally, regionally and globally, leading to collaborative and knowledge-sharing approaches to problem solving and research diversification. Yet, the most prevalent use of ICTs in agriculture is providing farmers with information and advisory services through SMS, voice, web portals and call centres. The author highlights the bi-directional sharing of information in the value chain between farmers and retailers, e-banking and the use of GIS to secure land titles. Challenges remain, however. They entail improving the mechanisms and infrastructure for sharing and exchanging agricultural knowledge generated through research at the national and regional levels, and boosting human capital to rapidly absorb and use these new technologies. Policy makers still need to appreciate fully the far-reaching benefits of ICTs and promote the right regulatory and market structures to realise their new opportunities, especially for Africa's benefit.



The term Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is used to refer to hardware, software, networks and media for collection, storage, processing, transmission and presentation of information in the formats of voice, data, text and images (World Bank ICT Glossary Guide). As such, the nature of ICTs is diverse, ranging from telephones, radios and TVs to more complex technologies such as Internet technologies, mobile telephony, computers and databases. This diversity means that they can be used by people with varying degrees of skills, although the current trends towards sophisticated applications are more and more demanding on the end user.

A primary purpose of ICTs is to provide an enabling environment for the generation of ideas, their dissemination and use. Through ICTs, the diffusion and sharing of knowledge is enabled through open access to information and better coordination of knowledge. ICTs facilitate the creation of networks locally, regionally and globally, leading to collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving and research diversification through shared knowledge-bases, online forums and collaborative spaces. This article highlights the opportunities that ICTs offer for transforming the agricultural sector in Africa.

The Promise of ICTs

The role of ICTs is recognized in Millennium Development Goal No. 8 (MDG8), which emphasizes the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications technologies in the fight against poverty. Global statistics indicate that 75% of the world's poor live rurally, and agriculture remains the largest single contributor to their livelihoods (IFAD, 2001; FAO, IFAD & WFP, 2002). Africa’s leaders have recognized this and made strong commitments towards the agriculture agenda (see Information Box 1.) Achieving food security requires new levels of innovation and ICTs can play a crucial role by enabling and facilitating agricultural innovation systems; providing rapid and efficient means of sharing and accessing information across the entire agriculture value chain.

The benefits of ICTs accrue not only from the technologies but also from their potential to facilitate technological recombination and change leading to innovation (UNCTAD, 2008). It is widely acknowledged that transformations in the global economy are being fuelled by ICT-powered innovation. As such, it is imperative for Africa to continue to prioritise ICTs on its development agenda both within agriculture and in other sectors.

In order to fully realise the benefits of ICTs, there are three broad prerequisites that must be provided: access, capacity (skills) and applications (services). Access refers to both the hardware and the underlying infrastructure. Both must be reliable and affordable; additionally, infrastructure must be ubiquitous. The capacity or skills to use ICTs are the second requirement. These skills are required to varying degrees at several levels along a continuum ranging from basic end-users (e-literacy) to ICT specialists with highly developed technical skills. Lastly, there must be applications and services that are relevant, localised and affordable.

Current Status of ICTs in Africa

It is important to consider the current status of ICTs in Africa to contextualize the challenges and opportunities for using ICTs to transform agriculture. Attention is focused on the key emerging technologies that have global impact: namely telephony and broadband internet. Figure 1 depicts ICT development in telephony and broadband internet in Africa over the 10-year period 1998-2008 (ITU, 2009).

Figure 1 - ICT Developments in Africa (Source: ITU Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 – Africa)

The graph clearly depicts the phenomenal growth in mobile telephony subscribers in Africa, the so-called “mobile boom”. Africa has in the last 5 years recorded the largest increase in mobile cellular subscribers and mobile telephony has become the most useful ICT tool on the continent. By the end of 2008, there were 246 million mobile cellular subscriptions in Africa, almost eight times more than the number of Internet users at 32 million. The distribution of mobile subscriptions is worth noting: 66% of mobile subscribers are in 6 countries, with Nigeria and South Africa having the largest shares. Although the distribution is uneven, significant developments have occurred relative to 2000 when South Africa had 75% of Africa’s mobile subscribers.

For fixed-line telephony, the developments are not as encouraging. In 1998, there were about 8.2 million fixed telephone lines in Africa, corresponding to a penetration of 1.4%, the lowest in the world. By 2008, only 2.4 million telephone lines had been added - less than 1% of the total number of telephone lines that the world added in the same period (see Information Box 2)

Comparing Africa with the rest of the world, Figure 3 shows that for the majority of African countries, less than 5% of the population use the Internet, compared to 23% worldwide. It should be noted that Internet penetration is correlated to availability of fixed telephone lines that are used for dial-up and broadband Internet access. Another factor contributing to the limited Internet penetration is that most countries in Africa have limited international Internet connectivity. In 2008, Africa as a whole had around 12 Gbps of international bandwidth, while countries such as India had more than 3 times this amount.

Figure 2 - ICT Uptake in Africa and the world (Source: ITU Information Society Statistical Profiles 2009 – Africa)

As the previous paragraphs have shown, the digital divide between Africa and the world is aggravated by the low penetration of broadband Internet, which is the result of the limited fixed line infrastructure and the limited international bandwidth. There are several initiatives that are currently ongoing to address these issues (see Information Box No. 3).
Other emerging ICT developments that will have an impact on Africa include:

  • 3G and WiMax technology
  • Low-power computing devices
  • Parallel and grid computing
  • Utility or “cloud” computing, in which computing resources are virtualised and are accessed over the Internet.
  • Pervasive computing (Everyware) which refers to the use of small, inexpensive networked processors that can be embedded in just about anything and used for monitoring and for sensory purposes, among other uses.

Uses of ICTs in Agriculture in Africa

Apart from scientists and researchers, the agriculture sector has a variety of players and stakeholders including farmers, commodity brokers, buyers, extension workers, policy makers and end-consumers. Each of these stakeholders has varying needs for, and uses of ICTs, all within the common thread of knowledge and information brokerage and sharing. The next few paragraphs will present a few examples of how ICTs are being used to support the agriculture sector in Africa. The discussion is intended to be illustrative and is by no means exhaustive.
The most prevalent use of ICTs in agriculture is to provide farmers with information and advisory services. The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) has compiled a comprehensive inventory of initiatives providing such services (FARA, 2009). From the results of the inventory, the basic information needs for farmers are market information prices, weather forecasts, transport facilities, information on storage facilities and information related to crop and livestock diseases and general advice related to agriculture. Using ICTs, the information is provided in a variety of ways: SMS, voice, web portal and call centre. The inventory indicates that several of the information services have been developed in order to provide information in a standard way using question-and-answer services and that the most popular services are audio- or voice-based.
Linking Local Learners is an initiative worth mentioning as it considers the entire value chain of farmers, buyers, transporters, traders and retailers and encourages the bi-directional sharing of information as well as peer learning. In this way, the users not only have access to information but are given the opportunity to learn from each other on how to use the information.

E-banking and especially mobile banking (m-banking) has had a tremendous impact on the socio-economic status of farmers. Through innovative schemes such as M-PESA in Kenya, farmers are able to send and receive money using their mobile phones (Safaricom). Another example is the smart-card-based MAKWACHA system in Malawi, which allows rural farmers to receive payments and purchase farm inputs electronically (FMB:

External certification for traceability of agricultural products is another area in which ICTs have been used. One example is the Fresh Food Trace web platform of the fruit-and-vegetable export company Fruilema GIE in Mali (Manobi, 2007). Using mobile phones, farmers provide updates on their activities which are aggregated on the platform and accessed by buyers. In this way, mango exporters are able to enhance the traceability of their products and to maintain global certification standards.

Examples of other uses of ICT in agriculture include the use of GIS technology in Somaliland to help former refugees to gain title to their land (Drysdale, 2005), CABI's Crop Protection Compendium, which is increasingly being used to identify and manage crop diseases and pests in Africa, the use of hydro-acoustic technology to assess fish stocks in Lake Victoria (Mkumbo, 2005) and development of community-based rural information centres through independent solar-powered local radio stations by RURANET in Niger (Benamrane, 2005).

Other applications of ICTs in agriculture include data collection, data analysis, geo-spatial applications, decision-support and knowledge-based systems, embedded ICTs in livestock and farm equipment and processes.

Challenges and Opportunities for ICT in Agriculture

There are several challenges facing the uptake of ICT in agriculture in Africa. These challenges will be looked at generally but also in the context of farmers and scientists and researchers.

The first challenge has to do with how ICTs are understood and perceived. In talking about ICTs there is emphasis on the Internet and associated technologies, leading to a narrowing of the context of ICTs to computers and the Internet. With the current mobile boom in Africa, the context has shifted to cell phones, computers and the Internet. This perception can result in other technologies such as radio and TV being sidelined or overlooked, a critical issue in Africa where half of rural households have a radio and 6% have TV, whereas only 2.6% have access to fixed telephones and 0.38% have access to the Internet.

Another challenge is that with regard to research, Africa suffers from poor mechanisms and infrastructure for sharing and exchanging agricultural knowledge generated from research at national and regional levels. According to the World Bank Development Report (World Bank 2007b), sub-Saharan Africa has nearly 8 times as many agricultural research agencies as the USA, yet because these agencies are fragmented across the different countries, economies of scale are not realized. ICTs have an important role to play by enabling the interconnection of these research agencies to facilitate collaborative research and information and knowledge sharing.

A third challenge is that the use of ICT by scientists and researchers will require the development of human capital to rapidly absorb and use new technologies. This will necessitate the integration of ICTs into agricultural education systems and eventually specialized programmes relating to ICTs in agriculture. The majority of farmers are based in rural areas where, as it has been pointed out, access to ICTs and other infrastructure and services is limited. In addition to this, general and ICT literacy levels tend to be lower in rural areas. Capacity building, including literacy programmes for farmers, is thus important not only to facilitate the uptake of ICTs but also to improve the farmers’ overall productivity and quality of life. ICTs can be used to provide distance-learning opportunities to farmers in a variety of ways, tailored to the individual needs of communities.

Furthermore, the provision of information systems for farmers and other stakeholders may be difficult to sustain if they are not willing to pay for the services. The challenge is to increase awareness of the benefits afforded by ICTs and to provide content and information which farmers, scientists and other agricultural stakeholders can afford and will be willing to pay for. Even where access to ICTs is possible, the creation and availability of locally relevant content that has been developed or adapted to local conditions and the language of local communities remains a challenge.

Emerging requirements for certification in the area of Good Agricultural Practice, such as the traceability of agricultural products, place new burdens on smallholder farmers wishing to obtain certification and export their goods (e.g. GlobalGAP). ICTs can be used to facilitate this process and economies of scale can be realised through community, national and regional integration of these activities.

Broadband is considered the gateway to universal access for rural areas and in view of the pervasiveness of mobile cellular technology, broadband wireless access (BWA) technologies such as 3G, WiMAX and Wi-Fi are promising options. The challenge with providing access in rural areas is that public investment in ICT infrastructure competes with investment in other priority sectors such as education and health and private investors are not keen to provide services in rural areas because of the risk of low returns on investment. Incentives offered to investors through Universal Service Funds are one way to ensure service in underserved areas. It should be noted, however, that the efficacy of last-mile solutions will still rely strongly on fixed-line infrastructure and connectivity to global networks.


The realization of the full benefits of ICTs to agriculture in Africa is linked to access, affordability, ubiquitous connectivity, relevant ICT skills including at highly specialized technical levels. For the development of customized applications for the diffusion of ICTs across the continent and their contribution to the transformation of Africa’s development, the following recommendations are proposed:

  • Establish regional and continental cross-border technological alliances to leverage economies of scale in providing access to infrastructure, bandwidth and other ICT resources. With proper infrastructure in place, content that is accessed over international links can be localized, thereby reducing the costs to the end-users. Additionally, national, regional and continental information systems and platforms can be established that do not need to use international links (see Information Box 4).
  • Encourage mainstreaming of ICTs in tertiary education systems and development of training programmes that focus on use and application of ICTs in priority sectors such as agriculture. Emphasis should be placed on developing multi-skilled professionals who are able to quickly adapt to Africa’s many needs.
  • Establish centres of excellence in ICT that can respond to the specialized needs of the agricultural and other sectors and build capacity to initiate local innovation.
  • Encourage the creation of local content and localization of content. Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) need to be captured and preserved; relevant content from outside Africa needs to be adapted to the local context both in terms of applicability and language of delivery; furthermore, content needs to be localized – provided as close to the end user as possible to reduce the cost of access.
  • Encourage the use of Universal Service Funds not only for provision of access but for capacity building and development of localized content.
  • Emphasize the appropriate selection of technology, putting people before technology; there is a need to focus more on the “I”- Information – and the “C” – Communication – in ICTs.
  • Ensure that sustainability is built in to ICT projects through innovative business models that involve the affected and impacted communities.


The role of ICTs is to facilitate rapid, efficient and cost-effective learning, knowledge generation and dissemination. In order to realize these benefits, access to ICTs in Africa must be ubiquitous, affordable and within the ability of the majority of Africans to learn and use. For the agriculture sector, ICTs can lead to poverty reduction through increased and improved productivity and access to markets. Policy and decision-makers need to realize the far-reaching benefits of ICTs by creating regulatory and market structures that promote liberalization and competition, promoting national and regional infrastructure sharing, making services more affordable through lower taxes and interconnection fees and promoting the rollout of fixed and wireless broadband. Further, there is need for coordination between policy makers and other stakeholders in ICT and other sectors such as health, education, science and technology and agriculture to ensure that synergy is created in the efforts of all these sets of actors with the common aim of reducing poverty in Africa.


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