How AgTech is changing East African economies

1 October 2018
Insight
Mechanized Tea Harvesting, Finlays Tea Estate, Koricho. Credit: Patrick Sheperd/CIFOR. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Food production is critical in East Africa, where over 80% of exports depend on agriculture. The future holds both opportunity, with global food demand expected to increase by up to 98% by 2050, and risk, with increasing use of robotics, automation and precision agriculture threatening the loss of over 20 million livelihoods. Over 70% of the population works in agriculture, including many women who work in low-income roles.

But while agriculture is still often referred to as an ‘old person’s job’, the growth of mechanisation, bio-technology, nanotech and digitalisation are changing agricultural production, with greater interactions than ever before with manufacturing and services. Agriculture is no longer a ‘traditional’ sector.

The evidence shows that ‘AgTech’ – the digital technologies transforming the agriculture industry – is already having wider impacts across East Africa. Instead of governments and multinationals funding farmers to produce food to established standards, private equity is now financing new innovative agricultural products and services targeting young people, who are pioneering AgTech development.  

However, the position of women – already often marginalised in terms of access to basic services, credit and markets – in the sector has not improved overall. In fact, the evidence points to new forms of exclusion. 

What AgTech looks like in East Africa

‘AgTech’ refers to digital technologies providing the agricultural industry with innovative products and data to improve productivity and sustainability. There are six key areas.

The first is ag-marketplaces connecting farmers with sellers. Uganda’s AgroMarketDay app, for example, allows farmers to upload pictures of their produce, which is then auctioned to the highest bidder.  

This is currently the biggest area for East Africa – my current research shows that 45-65% of AgTech firms in the region fall into this category.

Second is data-connected agriculture. For example, Uganda’s Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation is piloting data-capturing devices (sensors, video imaging) with the National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises and IGARA Tea. These collect geo-spatial data to create customised farmer profiles.

Another example is the African Open Data Intiative, which collates, matches and stores big data. This can then be analysed to optimise decision making and create reliable insurance and climate risk management products. 

There is also a range of farming apps that ease access to farm inputs and provide best practice advice for crop growth, such as Farm Africa in Tanzania and Precision Agriculture for Development in Kenya.

Third are mid-stream technologies, where we see blockchains growing in importance. In Rwanda, blockchains are used to secure farmers’ land titles, while in Tanzania they are used to protect the country against counterfeit food.

These two categories account for the rest of the AgTech sector in East Africa. Less relevant are other, more complex areas: farm robotics and automation; innovative food and farming systems (like indoor farms or plant-based meats); and ag biotech and biochemistry (like new chemicals, crops and seeds). 

New investors, young entrepreneurs – but same old gender divide

So what impact is AgTech having in East Africa? The good news is that it’s bringing new money and new (younger) faces to the agriculture sector; the bad news is that it doesn’t seem to be having a similarly transformational effect on gender inequality.

AgTech is attracting investment from non-traditional sources like wealthy individuals and private equity firms, who have invested USD 425 million in East Africa in 2015-2017 (up from almost zero in 2001-2002!). Of this, 62% was seed capital for new ventures, with the remainder for early start-ups.

Investors have largely focused on Kenya, which received 64% of the funding, followed by Uganda (26%), Tanzania (6%) and Rwanda (3%). South Sudan and Burundi make up less than 1%. If other East African countries want to remain competitive, they need to ‘learn’ from Kenya, which has begun to establish itself as a leader in the AgTech space.

The demographics of agricultural production in East Africa are also seeing a fundamental shift. The average age of AgTech company owners ranges between 29 and 32, suggesting enterprising and innovative youth are creating new tech-savvy value chains.  

But the position of women has not fundamentally changed. The data shows that in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda fewer than 30% of AgTech firm owners are women. In Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi, none are women. Recent work by the FAO and IT4Change highlights that women do not have full digital citizenship due to exclusions from digitalised service delivery systems. For all the new opportunities it offers, AgTech is also creating new barriers for women. 

East African governments and policymakers therefore need to strike a balance: making the most of AgTech to improve regional competitiveness, while finding ways to make the transition more inclusive and sustainable.