Agriculture is the backbone to most African economies, representing 15% of the continents total GDP. Around a quarter of the world’s arable land is found in Africa, yet it generates only 10% of global agricultural output.
Aside from factors such as poor infrastructure and financial support, one of the issues African farmers face is a lack of information and technical knowledge regarding crop disease, climate shocks, fertilisation and improved methods of farming that can significantly affect yields.
Around half of Africa’s population have a mobile phone and this number is increasing. These mobile networks can be used to share essential information to remote communities where the effects of drought and crop disease can be devastating.
In Ethiopia, where 85% of the population work in agriculture, this recognition has driven the development of a multi-lingual mobile-phone based resource centre. More than 3 million farmers have used the service created by the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, and similar messaging resources operate in countries such as Tanzania, Ghana and Uganda.
The service in Ethiopia uses speech recognition and SMS technology to provide farmers with data they previously would have not had access to. Farmers can receive messages on their mobile phones with information on crop disease, weather conditions, market prices and general farming tips. This mobile technology can be used to improve standards and educate farmers - even in rural areas - with more effective techniques and is an easy way to gain access to vital information on improving productivity, yield and economic prospects.
To sign up, farmers provide details on their farm, household income, the varieties of crop sown and farming techniques. This information is then used to deliver a highly personalised information service.
A greater productivity in agriculture is critical in reducing poverty and boosting farmers’ income and this mobile technology has also been developed for livestock and fisheries. As prices decline and mobile technology becomes more accessible in Africa, smartphones and tablets could provide more sophisticated app-based information for farming in the future.
Of course there are difficulties - such as unreliable network coverage and keeping phones charged up in villages with no electricity - but as technology becomes cheaper and more available, and although the cost of a device may be a barrier for smallholder farmers, these mobile services simply act as early warning systems and a tool for workers who will be able to disperse information and help communities prevent poor yields.