IFPRI: Africa needs agricultural information

A lack of good quality information about agriculture commodities prices and weather is holding back development for many of Africa’s farmers – and creates an opportunity for information service providers.

Access to good quality agricultural information is holding back the development of much of Africa’s agriculture market, according to Maximo Torero, director of markets, trade and institutional division at The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Ahead of speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) showcase in Abu Dhabi in March, Torero shared some of the insights from researching into the impact of information – on pricing and the weather – of the success of smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa.

“We focus on the three Cs – connectivity, cost and content – and for smallholders one of the most effective ways to improve their returns is to have better information on commodities prices and what they can sell their produce for into local markets,” said Torero.

“This is currently a big uncertainty for many producers as since 2007 we have moved into a new scenario of higher volatility of commodity prices which affects farmer decisions. As a result we started looking at how this information was provided to farmers and how much they benefit from it.”

The topic was also raised in Bill and Melinda Gates’ latest annual letter.

“In the next 15 years, innovations in farming could enable African farmers to increase their yields by half,” reads the letter. “One promising trend is that, as more farmers have access to mobile phones, they will be able to receive all sorts of information, from weather reports to current market prices — via text messages.”

“Agricultural extension, the process by which farmers get information — what seeds to plant, how to rotate crops to protect their soil, how to get the best prices at market — is complicated and expensive,” reads the letter.

IFPRI has researched the impact of providing farmers with this information in real time through mobile phones. And while owning a telephone or device that can receive this information will save a farmer from travelling to his local collection centre to find out current prices, the quality of the information is most important and has the biggest impact on a farmer’s success, according to Torero.

The private sector could play an important role in ensuring this information gets to farmers although it will need to involve a partnership with local governments, he added.

“Private investment into rural Africa is still very low, however, as corporates such as telecommunications companies haven’t had the incentive to move even more aggressively beyond cities yet, cellular phone penetration in rural areas still can grow significantly in the following years,” said Torero. “But if governments paid a bigger role in creating an appealing investment market – for example help with feasibility studies that map out demand  and increasing competition in the whole ICT sector– it will help enormously.”

Torero will speaking at the ICT for Sustainable Agriculture section of the GFIA event on March 9-11.