Shunning the traditional tool of aid, investors are focusing on innovative technology and entrepreneurship to ensure healthier development in Africa.
(Photo courtesy of Business for Health Solutions)
As Africa slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private sector leaders are looking for ways to ensure sustainable economic expansion, focusing on investment and partnership rather than aid and dependency.
A key element of this healthier, long-term development for the continent is innovation, linked to such important sectors as technology and entrepreneurship, which the government of South Africa recently said are all “vital for boosting economic growth and reducing social inequality.”
One simple but powerful innovation is the Digital Farming Platform (DFP), created by Fourth Wave Tech (FWT), a technology company operating in South Africa and the United States that “develops and leverages disruptive technologies to solve business and socio-economic challenges.”
FWT co-founder Tumi Frazier explained in an interview from Johannesburg that, “given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on many industries, including agri-food, there is a need to revive the agricultural sector for Africa’s post-pandemic recovery to ensure food security on the continent.”
Frazier added: “In fact, the pandemic has ampliﬁed the need to transform the sector through technology and the need to equip small-holding farmers with digital skills and knowledge of regenerative, eco-friendly farming.”
Harnessing innovative technology to combat harvest losses.
Frazier estimates that there are about 33 million small-scale farms in Africa, contributing up to 70% of the food supply for the continent with the youngest population. With greater support for these farmers, she believes that many African countries can increase food production and reduce poverty. Zambia is one of these countries.
So FWT has developed a customized, mobile application that provides farmers with information on the health of their farms, including: disease control, integrated pest management, soil management, crop analysis, historical yield analysis and forecasting, weather patterns, pricing, the digital ecosystem, supply chain and demand planning — and ultimately access to markets.
One key benefit of the DFP is combatting post-harvest loss and waste. “In Sub-Saharan Africa, post-harvest loss is estimated at 37%,” Frazier said. “Even a 1% reduction in food loss could lead to annual economic gains of $40 million — income that can go back into farmers’ pockets.”
Another attractive feature of the DFP is the affordability of the mobile app. The subscription could cost individual farmers as little as US$1 to $5 per month, or even per quarter, depending on the type of package they sign up for. Through partnerships with multilateral agencies, governments and food processing corporations, subsidies could reduce the end-cost for the farmers to zero.
Healthcare offers opportunities for entrepreneurship.
Frazier does not favour zero cost. “I would prefer it not to be completely free so that the farmers can also contribute a portion,” she said. “This way they are not too dependent on aid and can learn business skills and self-sufficiency instead of living from hand to mouth.”
At the continental level, Frazer said she hopes that “while taking the environment into consideration, Africa can become more self-reliant by reducing imports from other countries in the Global North, creating conditions to grow food locally and increasing intra-African trade by taking advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, which is a key to unlocking Africa’s full potential and global contributions.”
She added: “Africa has sufficient arable land and can still increase yields with available technology. Agriculture still holds great promise for Africa. It could literally become the bread basket of the whole world.”
The healthcare sector in Tanzania provides an example of simple but powerful, technology-enhanced innovation to solve another stubborn problem that Africa is facing.
“Building local capacity is one of the areas that low- and middle-income countries in Africa struggle with,” said Maureen Ogada Ndekana, a founding board member of Business for Health Solutions (BHS), a nonprofit that “applies an innovative private-sector approach to increase healthcare access in Africa.”
Digital innovation will empower individuals.
Ndekana noted that international development partners have traditionally delivered face-to-face, hands-on skills training for people in Africa. “But this can be expensive and take up to eight weeks,” she said in an interview from Dar es Salaam. “More importantly, training may not be targeted to specific gaps. So it is not as effective as it could be, and it has not been possible during COVID in any case.”
BHS has changed the inefficient paradigm by facilitating remote business and technical assistance, delivered by teams of international private sector experts through skills-based, virtual volunteering.
BHS arranges for experts around the world to volunteer their time, using simple communication technology such as Microsoft Teams, for three months to a year or even longer to help client recipients fill specific gaps on the ground in Africa, from Tanzania to Ghana.
Mecklina Isasi, BHS Global Client Engagement Manager in Dar es Salaam, gave the example of inventory management. “The volunteer and recipient might work remotely on process mapping to identify potential bottlenecks and then develop an action plan together,” she said. “Everything is virtual. All you need is reliable connectivity.”
So what’s in it for the volunteer?
“They are able to contribute to the improvement of healthcare in Africa while still doing their regular work,” Isasi said. “They also learn a lot about the African market and about local solutions to global issues.”
For African society, telecoms and tech entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa said that technology that supports simple but innovative initiatives “creates pathways to democratize access to opportunity. Only through accelerating digital innovation in Africa will we empower individuals, families, businesses and economies to reach their full potential.”
Three questions to consider:
- Why is it important to use innovation to help solve Africa’s economic challenges?
- What is one challenge that you have that might require an innovative solution?
- What could you do to come up with an innovative solution for this challenge?
Jeremy Solomons is a global leadership coach and facilitator, based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he writes regular “Leading Rwanda” and "Letter from Kigali" columns for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters financial reporter in Hong Kong and New York City and then a foreign correspondent in Frankfurt. He was also a farmer in Israel, factory worker and teacher in France, banker in England and Switzerland, and entrepreneur in Italy.