How can data and digital services secure rural and food futures in Africa?

Key Messages
Data and digital services are transforming the lives of people in Africa, chiefly through mobile telephones and related-services.
Data and digital services economy is insufficient to create the economic transformation needed in securing rural and food futures.
Economic transformation is linked with many developmental issues for rural folks.
Data and digital economy provides a way to broadly collaborate, learn and implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.


The data and digital services economy are here to stay. They are giving us enormous power, knowledge and capabilities to shape what we know about our past, our present, and our future.  Data and digital services have also become intertwined with our social, economic, and political relations, for better or for worse.  Perhaps, they might give us insights on what’s needed to advance economic transformation as well as secure rural and food futures in Africa.

According to a forecast by Ovum, a global technology, media and telecoms research and advisory firm, “Africa is expected to cross 1 billion people mobile subscriptions in the fourth quarter of 2016 reaching 1.02 billion by year-end”.  The forecast continues that, “the total number of mobile subscriptions on the continent will rise to 1.33 billion at the end of 2021, though growth in new mobile subscriptions is slowing down”.  The numbers of people on the “wire” are on the rise, and so are the new products and services hinged on the networks.

Even the revenue streams from data and digital have been projected to increase giving chance for Africa’s telecoms market to blossom and be the “engine” in some African economies.  Precisely the economy, how it functions, and what’s drives it, is a subject of much enthusiasm to economic critics and pundits.  One question that emerges from all is this: How can this connectivity be enabled through data and digital services secure rural and food future in Africa?

We see that the African telecoms market is subtly weaved into the economic transformation agenda, one in which to agrarian-based economies, one of the dominant themes is the intersection of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and agriculture.   Agriculture, itself, is a proven platform for economic transformation.  In a flagship report  by the African Development Bank, the African Union and the World Bank, the writers state that “the strategic application of ICTs to the agricultural industry, the largest economic sector in most African countries, offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation on the continent.” Again, the World Bank’s e-Sourcebook on ICTs and Agriculture  argues that “ICTs enhance the ability of smallholders to connect with the knowledge, networks, and institutions necessary to improve their productivity, food security, and employment opportunities.” There is yet more that data and digital services have already been shown to offer to food and agriculture, as the human race fully creates a networked world.

Image Credit --TechCabal

Image Credit –TechCabal

Ovum’s forecast proceeds to make other interesting observations: “…despite the progress being made in connecting Africa, the continent ranks second lowest among the world regions in its broadband development, according to Ovum’s Broadband Development Index (BDI), which measures countries and world regions based on their adoption of

“…despite the progress being made in connecting Africa, the continent ranks second lowest among the world regions in its broadband development, according to Ovum’s Broadband Development Index (BDI), which measures countries and world regions based on their adoption of high-speed broad band.  Africa has a BDI score of 232 out of 1,000 at the end of 2015, with Central and South Asia being the only region to record a lower score.  Mauritius is the highest ranked country in the BDI with a score of 279 out of 1,000 at the end of 2015. The next highest ranked Africa countries are South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, and Namibia.”

Clearly, countries with the highest BDI ranking might offer useful lessons to other countries and regions of the world especially in terms of the power of the high-speed internet in the transformation narrative.  High-speed internet is a tool for change in digital economies.  For example, a two-way relationship is built fast between citizens and policy makers, allowing for interaction on issues of common and mutual interest. Individuals and organisations able to take charge of this powerful tool for change stand to chart the future directions for their communities. This is even more relevant for rural folks in many ways, for example, the rural communities who prevented their elected leader from accessing their community because of poor roads.  The communities sent a strong message to their leader, leading to some positive action from their elected leader. We should not forget that the BDI index is but one metric, and would need to be complemented by other indexes, where possible.

Sometimes, it appears the logic in transformation/economic programmes targeted at rural folks is as follows:

If only poor rural folks could adopt such and such knowledge, technology, product, service, or practice, then things would be not that bad.  However, that is not the pattern researchers and practitioners would see. It turns out; things are often complicated and sometimes, nuanced.  It’s not a clear “slam dunk” as evidenced in a research on the “adoption problem” in African agriculture by Glover et al (2016) , who concluded that the adoption concept as used in development research practice is seriously flawed and leads to inaccurate and misleading conclusions.  This prompts a need for thorough social and behavioural sciences knowledge in order to realise rural economic transformation heeding to aspects such as useful knowledge; the envisaged impact; systems thinking and perspectives; and an understanding of the rural folk’s perceptions.

But “economic transformation agenda” in rural Africa advanced and enhanced through the data and digital services economy should not overlook the basics in rural development, which includes access to health and education; access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene; access to social safety nets and services; civic participation; clean and affordable energy; effective governance mechanisms and structure; promotion of healthy lifestyles; robust infrastructure; and wealth creation.

These basic aspirations can be seen across and through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The data and digital services economy would do much to provide a platform for more discussion, collaboration and implementation to ensure delivery of the ambitious SDGs.  In a sense, this would, directly and indirectly, have an impact on the urban and rural people – transforming their economic fortunes in the process.

One could argue that even with the full benefits of the data and digital services economy within our palm, strong human-enabled institutions are needed to bring to reality economic transformation to the rural folks.

Economic change might eventually come for all citizens in the future, but for some citizens, the data and digital change they wish to see should not be so hard to see with their own eyes, even today.

Raymond Erick Zvavanyange is the Zimbabwe Country Representative under the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development. He successfully completed a seven-year career in Government of Zimbabwe extension services. Raymond holds a Master of Science degree in Development Studies from Women's University in Africa (Zimbabwe) and a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources from Africa University (Zimbabwe). He can be reached via Twitter @zvavanyanger3

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