The digital revolution in global agriculture has begun and this includes digital tech in African agriculture. We now see the use of a variety of digital tools on the continent, such as drones, precision farming machinery, digital decision-making support tools, digital labor management tools or online food and agricultural input marketplaces. Even though the digital revolution is still at an early stage in many countries in the global South, it is gathering pace as many actors in the international development community herald it as a solution to achieving food security, and environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture through climate-smart agriculture. Digitalisation is often presented as a silver bullet to solve the tension between productivity, profitability, and sustainability in food production. Donor agencies are following a ‘digitalisation for development’ approach, while the World Bank and the FAO promote digitalisation as a key tool for transforming small-holder agriculture in the global South.
Not just farming; it’s about the food system
Digitalisation, however, encompasses a wider transformation of the food system beyond agriculture. Digital technologies are currently being rolled out across the entire food commodity chain including applications to test credit worthiness of small-holder farmers, precision agriculture on the farm level, new digital tools for sorting, packaging, and processing, digital supply chain transparency and traceability tools, e-commerce and last mile delivery offered by supermarkets. We hereby see a convergence of big food and big tech companies, the latter are moving into the food system, the former enhance their business model to more data based approaches.
Critiques of digital technologies emphasize the danger of an expansion of corporate power through digitalization and the loss of farmers’ autonomy and knowledge. In many regions of the global South the digital revolution is gaining traction in a period of a deep restructuring of food systems due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, a renewed push for green revolution technologies such as the ‘Green Revolution for Africa’ strategy’ and rising claims for a ‘just transition in agriculture’.
Digitalisation also intersects with financialisation, the incorporation of agrarian production in the global South into global food commodity chains, the rising super marketisation of southern food systems as well as an expansion of commercial and plantation agriculture and thus farm labour in the context of the ‘global land grab’ from the late 2000s onwards.
This research project
This research project, therefore, investigates how digitalisation is transforming food systems in the global South, starting from the assumption that we are currently witnessing the emergence of new digital socio-technical systems that restructure how food is produced, distributed, and consumed.
The first phase consists of a three-month scoping study consisting of three components.
- Three country studies: we are conducting a review of the state of agricultural digitalisation in three African countries – South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya – which have significant horticultural sectors linked to global export markets.
- African regional: we are reviewing the continental initiatives for African agricultural development as advanced by intergovernmental and regional institutions, and the policy frameworks that promote commercialisation and technology uptake.
- Germany: we are undertaking research in Germany, which is where much of the tech development is underway and companies are headquartered.
Prof Ruth Hall
Dr. Nkumbu Nalwimba
Dr. Richard Kiaka
The School for Field Studies
Prof Peter Dannenberg
University of Cologne
University of Cologne
Dr. Louisa Prause
Dr. Tatiana Lopez-Ayala
University of Würzburg