Sensors, data analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are helping to transform numerous industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, and the supply chain in all parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa.

A new research study, The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report 2018-2019, published by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), found that nearly 400 different digital agriculture solutions are in use in Africa, among 33 million registered farmers across the sub-Saharan region.

More than one-third of participants in the study said they already use at least one form of connected technology, such as field sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones), big data analytics, or machine learning, with almost 60 percent of respondents saying they expect to integrate these technologies into their operations over the next three years.

The combination of drones, sensors, and analytics can help farmers manage the irrigation and fertilisation of crops, not just season by season, but also over the long term by gathering reams of data from the soil and from aerial sensors.

Among the digital solutions tracked and analysed in the report are farmer advisory services, which provide weather or planting information via SMS or smartphone applications. Other solutions link farmers with markets for farm produce, or provide supply chain management to improve traceability and last-mile logistics.

Some services use satellite imagery, weather data, analytics, and machine learning to deliver real-time agricultural insights and forecasts at both national and regional levels.

Early figures from CTA indicate that farmers saw improvements in yields ranging from 23 to 73 percent, and increases of 18 to 37 percent in incomes by using these solutions. Models that bundle more than one offering together – so-called super-platforms, which combine digital market linkages, finance, and advisory services – are associated with improved yields of up to 168 percent, according to the report.
However, the current digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag) market is just the tip of the iceberg, with penetration of only six percent and estimated 2018 turnover of $143 million out of a total addressable market on the continent of $2.6 billion.

“Digitalisation can be a game-changer in modernising and transforming Africa’s agriculture, attracting young people to farming, and allowing farmers to optimise production while also making them more resilient to climate change,” said Michael Hailu, Director of CTA.

“This report indicates that, despite challenges, the economics are rapidly improving, with a handful of players beginning to develop viable, large-scale businesses. To reach its full potential, companies will now need to focus on converting customer reach to actual use in order for this type of model to yield returns.”

“Digitalisation for agriculture has the potential not just to support agricultural transformation in Africa but to do so sustainably and inclusively for Africa’s 250 million smallholder farmers and pastoralists,” added Michael Tsan, partner at CTA’s research partner, Dalberg Advisors, and co-leader of the firm’s global Digital and Data Practice.

“While the opportunity is immense, the report is not naïve about the challenges that remain and the significant work required by agribusiness, governments, donors, and investors to maximise the transformative impacts of digital agriculture in years to come.”

The research highlights gaps in D4Ag uptake, particularly among women, who account for more than 40 percent of the agricultural labour force, yet comprise just one quarter of the registered users of digital services. Such digital divides remain potential risks, says the report, as do the security and privacy of farmers’ data.

The report makes a number of recommendations for harnessing the technologies’ potential in African agriculture. These include:

  •  The creation of an alliance to promote partnerships and scale up solutions
  •  The need for greater attention to data privacy and security
  •  An ongoing focus on measuring D4Ag impacts
  •  The need to scale up investment for D4Ag infrastructure, such as national agriculture data systems, weather/climate surveillance, and digitised field agronomy assets.

In related news, sensors and connected technologies are helping to transform another industry: seaborne cargo transportation security in the West African country of Ghana.

Specialist provider Smiths Detection has won a contract with Meridian Port Services (MPS) to provide cargo inspection technology for the Tema Port Expansion project, which is designed to accommodate the world’s largest container ships, improve cargo handling, and increase trade to both Ghana and the rest of Africa.

Four Smiths Detection HCVPZ60 scanning portals, which can scan goods in shipping containers through nearly 12 inches of steel, have been selected to deliver security services, while safeguarding revenues derived from duties and taxes on containerised goods.