It's Time to Reform Africa's Food System

For many decades, African agriculture has been a symbol of the continent’s poverty. In fact, though, agriculture is one of the best ways to trigger social and economic development across the continent.

Agriculture is part of a vast food system that touches almost every aspect of life in society. The Sustainable Development Goals recently ratified by the United Nations paint a picture of the future the world is committed to building. Agriculture plays a part in reaching almost every single one of the 17 goals.

A resilient African food system will fight poverty, disease, hunger, and malnutrition by providing a better living to the poorest and sickest people on the continent. It will employ the rapidly growing youth population by creating a new class of businesses. It will shore up national economies and restore a reasonable balance of trade by allowing Africa to feed not just itself but also countries on other continents.

How does such a system get built? It is not easy, since food systems tend to evolve over time, but today’s African leaders have a powerful tool to deploy—digital technology—to make the process easier.

This list of five key principles conveys the main idea: Once you conceive of the goal of agriculture as more than simply producing enough calories to keep a population alive, you can harness its power to change a society.

First, the smallholder farmer is at the center: More than 80 percent of the agricultural production on the continent comes from smallholders. But these farmers are not nearly as productive as they should be, and they cannot sell their surpluses because the infrastructure to link them to markets is virtually non-existent.

Second, women are empowered: Women provide the majority of labor on African farms, but for a variety of reasons, they are less productive, on average, than men. Women invest as much as 10 times more of what they earn in priorities like education and nutrition and health, so when they have money and the power to decide how to spend it, everybody benefits. 

Third, when it comes to food, quality matters as much as quantity: We are only now beginning to understand the impact of malnutrition on poor countries. It's an underlying cause of almost half of all the deaths of children under 5. It also leaves tens of millions of African children cognitively or physically impaired for the rest of their lives. 

Fourth, there is a thriving rural economy around the smallholder farmer: Farmers need financial services, seeds, and fertilizer before they begin planting; after they harvest, they need storage, transport, processing, and marketing. Every single step in this process should be a business opportunity for an entrepreneur. 

Fifth, the environment is preserved for future generations: It is easy to boost yields with short-sighted investments and policies that deplete natural resources. Especially as the effects of climate change begin to be felt, it is critical that countries encourage sustainable agriculture.

Digital technology can help African farmers achieve all these goals, by clearing away one of the biggest obstacles to progress: the isolation of the smallholder farmer.  To take just one example, Ethiopia's Agricultural Transformation Authority (ATA) launched an agricultural hotline last year, and it has already logged more than 4 million calls and sends text messages to 500,000 users with up-to-date agronomic information. ATA is also creating EthioSIS, a digital soil map analyzing the country's soils down to a 10x10 km resolution. Eventually, these two systems will merge, pushing cutting-edge, highly tailored information to millions of farmers.

The digital infrastructure for interacting with smallholders is being put in place as we write. What happens in the next 10 years will determine what is possible through digital agriculture over the next 50. Getting it right means making sure that all farmers, especially the poorest and most remote, are included from the start.

It used to be that even if we had big ideas about how to support smallholder farmers, we didn’t know how to reach them. Now, we do.

So it is time to change the way we think. Farmers are not the cause of Africa’s poverty; they are a potential solution. They are key to creating the future envisioned by the SDGs.

Eventually, the work of building an African food system will be for experts: seed scientists, computer programmers, policymakers in government ministries, entrepreneurs with new business ideas. But right now, not enough people understand how much a new food system can do for the continent. What we need most is a generation of African leaders committed to advocating for this vision of an Africa transformed.