The COVID-19 may have governments, scientists and health workers confused as to how to contain it, it has, however, underlined the need for food sustainability, supply and safety and why technology needs to drive the agricultural industry in Africa.
As the number of confirmed cases on the continent exceeds 100,000 people, with 3,184 dead and 41,576 recovered, businesses and citizens have suffered from full and partial lockdowns considered as necessary measures to slow down the spread of the virus and address the healthcare needs of those affected.
Due to the restrictions, some farmers said they have been unable to harvest their crops from the farms, leading to losses, while others are unable to prepare for the planting season. As farmers experience restrictions, consumers suffer the scarcity in the form of increased price in food products.
In April 2020, the heads of three global bodies, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) jointly enjoined governments around the world to map out measures to ensure that the border restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic do not disrupt the food supply chain.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has also reiterated the need to ensure steady food supply for the period of lockdown in his last broadcast. Nevertheless, movement and supply of goods from the farms to the markets and to the consumers has been anything but smooth and steady.
Digital agricultural platforms also known as agritech firms have had to scale innovations to bridge the gap. Before COVID-19, significant successes were recorded in Africa in the area of digital agriculture as more digital services became commonplace. As new cases continue to emerge, the digitalization of agriculture is still helping farmers to secure basic and essential supplies like fertilizers for farm activities and operations. It is also helping farmers assess supply chain services, markets, advisory, as well as, financial and credit facilities.
The digital era offered online platforms like Agropartnership, CrowdyVest, and ThriveAgric among others in Nigeria, the opportunity to provide credits directly from individual and institutional investors to farmers even as the pandemic persists in Africa.
Thrive Agric in May said it plans to offer a solution that sustainably matches food production against a rising population and to foster a fast and effective demand and supply chain between the market and the local farmer. By the end of 2020 the brand plans to leverage on Technology to connect over 250,000 farmers to finance, insight and distribution for their harvest, the brand infuses both digital technology.
In Ghana, a platform known as e-Soko is providing farm-related data management support to farmers, thereby assisting them in the monitoring and analysis of their farming records. The platform, which is accessible either via e-Soko’s website or smartphone application, connects a farmer to different markets, secure payments, and advisory opportunities. While eMsika, a leading platform in Zambia, is also assisting farmers and consumers engage in retail and wholesale trade of agricultural produce, Kenya-based FarmIT provides e-commerce solutions, market linkages and agronomic support to farmers.
With more phone access and higher internet penetration rates and the impacts on logistical and e-commerce services, social distancing measures have even become more realistic. For example, more start-ups in the Agric sector across the continent have turned towards platforms that connect them with consumers, thus, reducing the number of contacts that consumers are exposed to while also ensuring that food reaches everyone. Start-ups such as Farmerline and Chowberry are providing information and food that could help vulnerable people in farming communities amidst the pandemic.
For other startups like Mobile Coldroom, it has been a huge awakening to reconsider external factors and to review strategic direction. At the inception, the venture adopted a vertically integrated tech-enabled food supply business model but had to swiftly change to a business to business (b2b) model; ensured by the poor response from consumers, unreadiness of the market and the huge logistic gap in the frozen food industry.
According to Akinwunmi Adeshina, President of Africa Development Bank (AfDB) and former Nigerian minister of Agriculture, by 2030, the size of the food and agric business in Africa will reach $1 trillion. Agritech firms are expected to account for a significant chunk of the estimate which also positions them as critical players in the race for food sustainability in Africa.
Although the World Bank predicts a 25 percent decline in food imports in Africa as a result of the pandemic, the deliberate closure of borders to trade and travel by many African governments has afforded business in the sector the opportunity to review their strategies.
Solutions such as utilizing locally-manufactured farm tools and trading food products such as rice and others that are hitherto dominated by the import-market would need government support to stimulate investment and alleviate food shortages. For instance, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s largest rice-importing region. If the pandemic continues to the extent borders remain shut, the long-standing failure to stay committed to local solutions may, however, have devastating impacts on food security. Certain retail food prices also are likely to rise, exerting extreme impacts on the majority of the population since food, before the pandemic, accounts for a larger share of many household budgets.
This article was written with participation from Opeoluwa Runsewe, managing director of Mobile Coldroom.