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Is Digital Transformation in Nigerian Agriculture a Myth or Reality?

31 July 2018 1 comment

There is a lot of hype about digital agriculture as the ‘next big thing’ after crude oil in Nigeria. Currently, there is hardly any debate on agricultural development in the Nigerian news and on social media platforms without the use of buzz words such as ‘digital disruption’ or ‘digital transformation’ in describing the future of Nigerian agriculture. But what are these digital innovations causing all the hype? They are digital platforms, developed over the past five years by start-ups, established by young Nigerian entrepreneurs. While some start-ups are self-funded, most have benefited from international funding and incubation programmes provided by the growing number of tech-hubs across Nigeria (see Figure 1) [1] [2].

Figure 1: Number of active tech hubs in West Africa. Source: GSMA (2018a)

The digital platforms currently mainstreamed into the Nigerian agricultural sector mainly utilise mobile applications, web applications and short messaging service (SMS). These platforms are used to provide a range of transactional and information services which can be grouped into four main business models:

  1. Crowdfarming: A venture capital model that sources investment capital to fund several farm enterprises [3].
  2. Agricultural advisory service: This model uses mobile apps, SMS and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) to provide tailored information to farmers in all stages of the value chain.
  3. Online farm management information system: This offers a platform for farm owners to provide data about their farms and receive location-specific recommendations.
  4. Online agro-trading: These platforms serve as an avenue for farmers and other value chain actors to advertise their agricultural products to potential buyers.

As research on agro-digital platforms in Nigeria is still at a nascent stage, the magnitude of impact relative to platform usage is still unclear. However, some assumptions are currently driving the perception that these innovations would digitally transform Nigerian agriculture. Two of these assumptions are:

Assumption 1: With the widespread adoption of mobile devices in Nigeria the rural population, who make up the largest share of stakeholders in agriculture, can now participate in the emerging digital agricultural platform economy. In reality, mobile network infrastructures in rural Nigeria are weak or non-existent in some cases. Actively engaging with these platforms requires strong mobile network and reliable internet connection to download apps or access web platforms. 2G remains the predominant mobile network broadband in Nigeria while 3G coverage is centralised in big cities, especially Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt (see Figure 2) [3]. Also, the signal strength of both 2G and 3G networks ranges from medium to weak as we move from the urban centres to rural areas – where most farmers are located. This discrimination in mobile network coverage further reinforces the digital divide between the rural and urban population [4], and also shows what groups are more likely to benefit from the growing platform economy in Nigeria.

Figure 2: Mobile network coverage maps (Nigeria) for 2G and 3G respectively. Source: GSMA (2018b)

Assumption 2:  If we assume that farmers have reliable mobile networks and internet access which allows them to download mobile apps or access web platforms, the second assumption is that farmers have the technical skills to use these platforms. Yet most farmers are not ‘tech-savvy’ and some of these digital platforms tend to be different from the conventional voice and SMS platforms with which farmers are more familiar. Not only does this serve as a constraint to fully actualise the affordances of these platforms, it has also resulted in the emergence of ‘digital intermediaries’. These digital intermediaries either help farmers to gain access to digital platforms by performing more skill-intensive tasks such as downloading apps and creating user profiles, or they perform the functions of traditional agricultural intermediaries such as: aggregating produce, standardising and marketing produce on digital platforms, independent of farmers’ involvement on the platform itself. While this is not a bad thing, it is important to understand the role and impact of digital intermediaries in influencing value capture and value sharing along digitally-enabled agricultural value chains.

Transformation is a process and there is great potential for digital transformation in Nigerian agriculture. However, it is said that the apps won’t plough the field [4]; neither would the apps build roads to connect farmers to markets. While the digital tools to facilitate the transformation process already exist, poor infrastructure and digital skill gaps still serve as constraints to actualising the transformational potential of digital innovations in agriculture [5]. To move from ‘potential’ to ‘actual’ transformation requires investment in ICT infrastructures, road networks, electricity, and digital literacy; as well as an enabling policy environment which supports upcoming agro-digital entrepreneurs [6].

Reference

[1] GSMA (2018a) The Mobile Economy: West Africa. GSMA, London https://www.gsmaintelligence.com/research/?file=e568fe9e710ec776d82c04e9f6760adb&download

[2] David-West, O., Umukoro, I.O. and Onuoha, R.O. (2018) Platforms in Sub-Saharan Africa: startup models and the role of business incubation, Journal of Intellectual Capital, 19 (3): 581-616 https://doi.org/10.1108/JIC-12-2016-0134

[3] GSMA (2018b) Mobile Coverage Maps. GSMA, London https://www.mobilecoveragemaps.com/africa

[4] Naruka, P.S., Verma, S., Sarangdevot, S.S., Pachauri, C.P., Kerketta, S. and Singh, J.P. (2017) A study on role of WhatsApp in agriculture value chains, Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics & Sociology 20 (1): 1-11

[5] Deichmann, U., Goyal, A. and Mishra, D., 2016. Will Digital Technologies Transform Agriculture in Developing Countries? The World Bank, Washington, DC

[6] Akanbi, B.E. and Akanbi, C.O. (2012) Bridging the digital divide and the impact on poverty in Nigeria, Computing, Information Systems & Development Informatics, 3 (4): 83-85

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