Mobile Value Added Services for Agriculture in Africa


Insight from GSMA Mobile 360 Africa Conference, Cape Town, October 7-9, 2015

There were several key insights to the demand for agricultural intelligence that can be inferred from this recent international conference on mobile communication held in Cape Town, October 7-9. The first is that we should expect in the near future, universal access to not only mobile communications, but also to broadband data and the internet, even in remote areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The second, is that the future growth of this industry in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will come from increasing mobile phonepenetration to the remaining 60% of SSA’s 900m population that is not subscribed to a mobile network.

Much of those future users are rural based and engaged in agriculture. However, that growth will need to overcome low levels of literacy and especially digital literacy in rural, agricultural areas of SSA. The expanding mobile communications infrastructure and a more robust business ecosystem will soon be in place for digital entrepreneurs to successfully serve the agriculture sector in SSA with innovative services and user centric designs.

According to the Chairman of the GSMA, Fedrik Baksaas, there is $13 billion of planned investment in mobile communication technology in SSA by 2020. Specific to extending broadband coverage to the underserved, there are also several innovative ventures that are focused on that problem, such as Vanu and Google Loon, to make broadband access economically feasible and sustainable for even the most remote, rural populations. With continued investment and new innovation, we should expect the goal of universal digital inclusion to even the remotest rural communities within the coming 10 years, if not sooner.
This is important as the estimated 60% of the SSA population that are not currently subscribers will represent one of the primary areas of mobile industry growth over the near and medium term. These new subscribers will also come from rural areas, and thus be engaged in agriculture as a principal economic activity. The second area of growth will be increased use of data, or 3G and 4G networks. GSMA estimates data traffic in SSA will grow by 20 fold from 2013 to 2019, around twice the global rate.

The evolution and rapid growth of the mobile industry in SSA is also bringing new opportunities for digital entrepreneurship. The President and CEO of Ericsson SSA, Mr. Fredrik Jejdling pointed out that ICT tools now have the power to transform the industry in which they are used. Well known examples of this kind or transformative power of ICT tools are Uber and AirBNB. To that point local MNO’s and other MNC, such as Ericsson, are trying to build the ecosystem and for digital entrepreneurship to provide innovation and new services to what is becoming a more digitally connected African continent. Of course, mobile apps and value added services for agriculture is one area supported by GSMA and much talked about in in the conference as well.

Agriculture employs two thirds of Africa’s labor force and accounts for a third of the region’s GDP. The mobile industry now gives farmers the opportunity to stay abreast of pricing movements, take advantage of mobile financial services, and access agronomic and weather data. There are a number of MNO led initiatives for mobile agri value added services, including start-up initiatives focused on promoting adoption of farmer facing Apps. We can expect more innovation and investment in his area and greater demand for weather and agronomic tips to drive farming that responds to the threats and opportunities.

However, there has been significant challenges for early mAgri VAS to succeed and become sustainable. African farmers typically have a low willingness to pay for information services, so any mobile ICT solution will need to scale and reach large number of farmers for it be commercially sustainable. Many mAgri services that have launched in emerging markets have suffered from low user adoption. Despite coming from leading mobile network operators and value-added service (VAS) providers, only 25% of mAgri VAS subscribers use the service more than once. Clearly, there is more work to be done to create mAgri VAS that is valued by farmers. Also, there is the issue of the lack of digital literacy amongst Africa’s diverse rural, agriculture population. Digital literacy is defined as the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. In many farming communities in Africa, general literacy is already low without having to include knowledge about how to use a smart phone, navigate web-pages, move between Apps, etc. New mobile Apps and ICT tools for farmers must be designed to fit the cognitive and technical skills of farmers today. This has bene the case with several of aWhere’s current clients in Africa, namely Esoko and iShamba have successfully gained adoption amongst because they have been able to design a service that is suitable for the farmers’ level of technical knowledge. This issue has been recognized by GSMA, and they released during the conference the brand new “mAgri Design Toolkit: User-centered Design for Mobile Agriculture.”

In conclusion, we should expect that with the improving infrastructure and ecosystem for digital entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa, the largely underserved agriculture sector will also be targeted for more ICT investment and innovations, such as mAgri VAS. The challenge ahead will be to identify the data services that are valued by farmers, and to design such services and interfaces that will be easily adopted by the African smallholder who has low levels of literacy and especially digital literacy.

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