Innovative digital solutions can aid food systems across five East African countries, found the World Food Programme (WFP) and London-based market insight forecaster Briter Bridges.
Their report on how East Africa can utilise these technology-driven solutions was released in partnership with US Aid.
Bridges, together with researchers Lisa Hannah and Dario Guiliani, reported that over the past half-decade there has been proliferation of start-ups and entrepreneurs providing technological, accessible, and affordable tools to increase agricultural productivity and efficiency along the different nodes of the food system.
They report this is from farm management apps, to smart irrigation products, and supply chain management software, helping farmers adapt to, and mitigate both internal and external shocks to the value chain.
“Solutions extend beyond mere agritech companies, as the food system is to be understood more broadly and being supported by a combination of auxiliary sectors, which allow for more productive and structured processes from the producer to the consumer. These include, among others, finance, logistics, and energy,” according to the report.
The study concurs that a number of factors come into play in supporting a healthy food system. These include tech hubs, research organisations, donors and investors.
Because of the risk aversion in the sphere, investment and focused assistance for food system innovation has been minimal compared to other tech-driven sectors, such as fintech or e-commerce, despite the fact that this is an area with extremely high impact potential.
“Aside from the availability of capital, farmers’ willingness and capacities to try new technologies, user adoption of internet and mobile data, female representation in agriculture, and a fragmented support system remain some of the biggest obstacles for entrepreneurs to thrive in East Africa.”
Briter ridges has pegged Kenya as the agritech capital of East Africa, as support organisations and start-ups have both gained traction over the course of the last few years.
“While the country still has some way to go in terms of food security and childhood stunting, a lot of progress has been made to improve the conditions of the food system.
“In contrast, South Sudan’s nascent start-up ecosystem is primarily recipient of development and donor funding, and is yet to see a sophisticated entrepreneurial scene appear. Acute food insecurity remains very high, and subsistence farming dominates the agricultural landscape.”
Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries accounted for 15.5% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s value added gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. Agriculture accounted for 26.2% of value added GDP across Eastern Africa, including the Horn of Africa, according to the average of the most current available numbers for each country, with Somalia at the top and Djibouti at the bottom.
Factors impacting East Africa’s food security
There are a number of factors that impacts a country or region’s food security, and these include political, social, economic and environmental factors. Beyond that, it also includes a lack of access to information on best practice, the volatility of food prices, low production inputs, knowledge on markets and finance, post-harvest losses and food price volatility.
According to a study by the Africa Development Forum (AFD) and the World Bank on African food systems, demographic growth, urbanisation, and changes in agricultural production and trade will be the three main factors for both risks of malnutrition and opportunities to boost employment, production, and distribution in the region, highlighting the delicate balance the food system is in.
“Approximately 65% of countries across the region are dependent on high commodity exports , and while Africa as a region was a net exporter of food in the 1980s, the continent has switched between being a net exporter and importer over the last 20 years, and intra-regional trade has been the lowest in the world,” Briter Bridges said.
In East Africa, there are approximately 30 million people are facing severe food insecurity, particularly in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia, which come as a result of conflict, climate change and macroeconomic stability.
“According to McKinsey, food production of cereals and grains could be tripled if agricultural productivity were to be intensified. However, achieving this would require billions of dollars in investments to increase access to fertiliser, expand basic storage, and boost irrigation.”
“The FAO suggests that between 1991 and 2013, sub-Saharan Africa suffered losses of about USD $31 billion as a result of droughts, with about 60% of losses found in East Africa,” Briter Bridges said.
“La Niña, an ocean surface cooling phenomenon occurring every few years, meant that South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda were inflicted with lower than average rainfalls near the end of 2020, resulting in failed crops and an urgent need for food assistance for millions of people.”
Furthermore, food waste is arguably the biggest flaw of the global food system, as a projected 768 million people were food insecure in 2020 yet an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year. There are a number of severe implications associated with food waste, including greenhouse gas emissions, water wastage, loss of farmer incomes, and limitations to food accessibility.
According to a study conducted by WWF and Tesco, around 40% of all food produced is lost or wasted, resulting in approximately 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Plant diseases and pests
Pests and plant diseases are also wreaking havoc on crops in East Africa, many of which are classified as Invasive Alien Species (IAS). These are pests and plants that negatively impact their ecosystem.
“Such pests are a major financial burden on the agricultural sector in Africa, costing an estimated $65 billion per year. The armyworm, for instance, is an invasive insect pest that was discovered in Western and Central Africa in 2016.
“It has since been detected across multiple countries across the continent, and has had a highly destructive impact on crops, including maize, sorghum and wheat, threatening both food security and livelihoods,” the report reads.
ALSO READ: New rice variety will double Kenyan farmers’ yields