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Digital Inclusion

East Africa Com Interview: Anne Wangalachi on how tech is transforming agriculture

The largest population growth globally is happening in Africa and innovation in agriculture is, without a doubt, an important tool to tackle food security for the rapidly growing population.

Ahead of East Africa Com 2020, Connecting Africa spoke to agribusiness expert Anne Wangalachi to better understand this sector and the opportunities that technology is bringing to young farmers in Africa.

Connecting Africa (CA): Despite around 80% of East Africans relying on agriculture for their livelihood, the sector remains underrepresented in both research and investment. What are some of the major challenges that technology can address within this industry?

Anne Wangalachi (AW): Technology offers the opportunity to create impact at scale. Take extension for instance, through digital platforms with human-mediated interventions, technology can be used to provide e-extension services to millions of farmers at one go, on demand.

Technology can help tackle the problem of ageing farmers. Technologies such as hydroponics (growing crops without water in greenhouses) can attract young people to agriculture; solving three major problems at once: youth unemployment, food insecurity and the ageing farmer population in Africa. By taking drudgery out of farm operations and engaging youth in attractive, short-season, high-value crops such as lettuce and sweet pepper, we can show them that farming pays and encourage them to stay on the farms not necessarily in rural areas but in emerging peri-urban farming hubs.

Technology can create inclusive agri-markets. Fintech solutions can provide real-time data on produce markets, prices, demand and supply thereby taking the guesswork out of produce marketing for farmers. Through mobile-money-based payment solutions farmers can be paid in near-real time for their produce based on weight and quality, thereby increasing trust in market systems and encouraging them to invest in "farming as a business" – i.e. investing in quality inputs and good agronomy to optimize returns.

CA: What is one particular trend or development in AgriTech people should be keeping an eye on?

AW: I would have to say combining the power of big data, advisory services and fintech. These are game changers creating sensible trend data on demand and supply, for raising productivity, and overall enabling farmers to make more money from their farming operations through streamlining access to credit, farm insurance and payments for farm produce.

CA: What excites you most about working in the African agribusiness sector?

AW: At a personal level, I am excited by the increased attention and investment that African agribusiness is getting. I launched my agribusiness strategy consulting career in 2016 with the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) as my first client. Then, for my first challenge, I had to design a value proposition for funders to invest in gender-responsive AgriTech solutions developed in Africa, by Africans for Africa. AWARD was then pioneering research in this field and wanted a program to shine the spotlight on these innovations and showcase their bankability. This is how Gender in Agribusiness Investments in Africa (GAIA) came into being.

GAIA's value proposition resonated so strongly with the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank that they funded not just the pilot and top innovators but went on to fund two phases of GAIA to scale across Africa. For me this showed that finally investors – both philanthropies and businesses – were looking for bankable agribusiness ideas. The majority of the GAIA innovators were startups managed by women and youth; this was even before "gender lens investing" had gathered momentum.

From then I moved to advocating for increased agribusiness investments at Africa level through the World Economic Forum for Africa platform in 2017 with heads of government, global development banks, multinational and others actors committing to raise the levels of financing for this vital sector. This attention has only gotten stronger for many reasons.

Firstly, the size of the prize is incredible: annual business value of $1 trillion dollars by 2030. Whatever your role in Africa's agribusiness whether in production, logistics, finance, mechanization – you name it; it will be a profitable business.

Secondly, I am encouraged by the increasing adoption by many sector stakeholders, especially governments, of a more business-like approach to agribusiness and agribusiness investments, by seeking to collectively answer: How can the sector be made more attractive and conducive to private sector players?

Lastly, I like the energy of the beating pulse that is Africa's agribusiness. It is truly an engine for economic growth. It is creating numerous and new types of exciting jobs in the sector; energizing our youth about working not just on the farm but off it; providing raw materials for industry; attracting non-traditional financiers by showing its business value, and spurring innovations in technology to solve challenges in production, post-harvest and marketing.

CA: You'll be at East Africa Com to moderate a panel on "How Technology is Helping Reposition Agriculture as an Investment Priority." Which key topics are you hoping to dig into with the panelists?

AW: Firstly, I will dig into the narrative of Africa as being the last frontier in business; with it being said that the greatest value in agribusiness is to be found in Africa, how can the technology businesses find and extract the one-trillion-dollar value from the agri and food value chains in Africa by 2030?

Secondly, I will be looking into finding out from the panel and the audience, where these funds are that can be used to transform African AgriTech? Are the funds in private equity, in development programs or in development entities like Microsoft for Africa, MasterCard Foundation or even IBM Research Lab for Africa? Also, how can we access these funds to leverage on what people are working on to drive more use of AgriTech in Africa?

Thirdly, I will drive the conversation towards the fact that African agriculture needs patient capital. Keeping in mind that there are inherent risks due to climate change, weather and production not meeting the goals of producers, and therefore how do we invest in it for the long haul? How do we crowd in investors who have that patient view? An example being Twiga Foods which has managed to secure $30 million from Goldman Sachs, proving that we can leverage and use private equity very effectively.

Lastly, I will guide the collective in exploring recommendations for increased access to low-cost and accessible data in agriculture or use of existing data to enable other entities to better serve farmers. I will also be looking to hear how existing initiatives like the World Bank's Disruptive Agricultural Technology are working to bring one million smallholder farmers on to digital platforms; for e-extension, financial inclusion, market linkages and for services such as drones for spraying their crops. I am hopeful that the panel discussions will create a space for high-tech and low-tech AgriTech innovations that can work for farmers and are fit-for-use. I will be keen on how Nigeria's "Hello Tractor" can be scaled in Kenya, and how other innovations like using drones to cost-effectively spray crops can be scale-adaptive.

— Anne Wangalachi will be speaking at East Africa Com 2020, taking place from September 14 - 15 in Nairobi, Kenya. Take a look at the full speaker line-up for the event here.

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