Data Positions Africa’s Small-scale Farmers as Drivers of Continent’s Growth

October 15, 2019

The potential to increase Africa’s agricultural yields through strategic data use could position the continents’ farmers at the heart of tomorrow’s global economy.

The strategic use of new data available on Africa’s small farmers and contractors presents the continent with increased hope for food security as well as a new and much more diversified export proposition, “supporting sustainable foreign exchange earnings, providing skills-appropriate job opportunities, and driving broader supply chain development opportunities across an expanded agriculturally-focused industrial value chain,” said Antois van der Westhuizen, Managing Director – Sub Sahara Africa, John Deere Financial.

New technologies readily available to Africa’s small-scale farmers mean that the continent is finally at that moment where Africa’s vast, as-yet-unrealised agricultural opportunity can be made relevant to capital, mechanisation, and vast new global markets. 

Simple information about Africa’s farmers, the land they farm, and their activities on that land holds the potential to drive the mechanisation of African agriculture. 

The historical challenge for Africa’s smaller famers, is that they have no data — no credit history, no input information, and no yield records. They are also often “unable to show any formally or legally recognised proof of title to or rental of their land,” van der Westhuizen said. Furthermore, since many don’t operate within the formal economy, they have no access to credit, producing only enough food to survive and barter for goods.  

The result is that “the largest chunk of Africa’s arable land produces little surplus to sell,” van der Westhuizen said.

As a business committed to the people who are linked to the land, John Deere’s 182-year history has taught that, regardless of where you are in the world, information is key to increasing yield by unlocking funding for mechanisation.

John Deere has worked with ACDI/VOCA, ADVANCE, and USAID as well as other input providers in Ghana, mechanising and providing fertilizer and seeds to demo farms for small and subsistence farmers in the county. “The results have been astounding,” van der Westhuizen said. In some cases, yields have increased seven times, confirming what John Deere already knew — namely, that if small farmers are able to access mechanisation, fertiliser, and seed as well as the correct application thereof, they can increase their yields.

“What is different today in Africa is that we now have data,” van der Westhuizen said.

Kenyan and Tanzanian small and subsistence farmers operating on MPesa, for example, access the real economy, selling and buying goods online. From a data perspective, since they now have a digital footprint, “we can start getting a picture of their inputs, suppliers and costs, as well as their yields, off-takers, incomes, and payments histories,” van der Westhuizen said. 

This information holds the key to revolutionizing agriculture in Africa.  

Without even having a bank account, “we now have a detailed view of subsistence farmers input, production and payment,” van der Westhuizen said. With GPS technology able to provide accurate acreage, “we can quickly work out how certain inputs, and their cost, might be affordable to the farmer given the increase in yield that we know these inputs will drive in that location,” van der Westhuizen said.

In short, with just a handful of data points, the ability to provide credit to small scale farmers increases drastically, allowing the farmers to start building credit records and increasing their bankability.

But the impact of data doesn’t end there. 

The next step will be to, “use the data from multiple small farmers collectively to develop new supply chains and markets,” van der Westhuizen said. 

Since properly-managed and scientifically-conducted agriculture is more sustainable, the sector has the potential to produce food indefinitely. This vision for Africa’s agricultural sector places Africa at the heart of tomorrow’s global economy. “The new data available on Africa’s farmers is what will unlock this potential,” van der Westhuizen said.

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