Gates Foundation and partners launch Digital Agri Hub

Only 13% of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are registered for any digital service to boost production. The newly launched Digital Agri Hub is hoping to improve this statistic.

An young Ethiopian farmer carrying maize plants. Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa often lack access to digital services. Yasuyoshi CHIBA/AFP

Co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Digital Agri Hub launched officially last week.

It aims to provide insights into digital agriculture for small-scale producers and supports investments in solutions that can make a real difference on the ground.

Digital innovations can play a key role in reacting to external shocks, boosting productivity, and improving the livelihoods of small-scale producers across the low-and-middle income countries, especially in the wake of Covid-19, according to Simona Benvenuti, programme manager at the Netherlands Advisory Board on impact investing (NAB), one of the partners in the new hub.

“The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the food chain because there was disruption of our food supply,” Benvenuti told Impact Investor.

Knowledge platform and matchmaker

The hub will act both as a knowledge broker, providing relevant insights on potential digital agricultural innovations, and as a matchmaker, connecting investors with tech companies they can invest in.

“The idea is that the investor will invest in the agritech company, and this technology will then be used by the small-scale producers in the emerging markets for their own farm,” said Benvenuti.

“By improving the quality, availability and utility of data, insights harvested by the hub will not only improve digital products and services for small-scale producers, but also guide investment towards the right solutions,” she added.

Bundling digital services

While digital “isn't a physical input, it can improve systems and help them to be more efficient,” Stewart Collis, senior programme officer for digital agriculture solutions at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said at the hub’s virtual launch event last week.

“Digital can help further the reach of information services, for example, addressing the lack of in-person extension agents [organisations that work with farmers to improve farming methods and techniques. ed.],” said Collis.

“Digital can help overcome barriers to accessing services, such as using voice technology to overcome low literacy, or (it) can help enable faster response to changing conditions, enabling real-time information such as a delayed planting season.”

Evidence suggests that “bundling digital services such as advisory, finance and market linkages results in greater positive impact on small-scale producer incomes and productivity,” said Collis
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The hope is that improved livelihoods will empower women and marginalised groups, while also strengthening climate resilience.

Identifying best practices

The hub “will collate the essential data necessary to understand which combinations of services are reaching men and women small-scale producers at scale with impact, and act as a guide for investment and adoption of the most impactful digital agriculture products, solutions and services,” Collis said.

As a former telecoms analyst, Daniele Tricarico, who is now insights director at hub partner GSMA, has witnessed the development of the digitalisation for agriculture (D4Ag) sector up close. He has worked with a number of different solution providers in collaboration with mobile operators.

“It is exciting to see a growing number of D4AG services coming to market, but this fast-paced sector also experiences a high level of fragmentation and many short-lived initiatives,” said Tricarico.

“It is therefore crucial to quickly identify emerging best practices and highlight the operational and business models that can support truly sustainable, scalable solutions."

Wageningen University and Research leading the hub

Collis admitted digital “also has its own challenges,” including “inequitable access to digital tools and the potential to leave some behind, negative consequences of social media and misinformation, issues around data ownership and cybersecurity and dependencies on mobile internet infrastructure and government policies.”

In order for digital agricultural services to be successful, “we need to address these challenges but we also need more investment in the sector, including philanthropic, public and private capital, to mobilise innovative, sustainable solutions,” said Collis.

Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands will be leading the Digital Agri Hub for its first 3.5 years, in partnership with NAB, Grameen Foundation, a Nigerian non-governmental organisation and GSMA, an industry organisation that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide.