“Land never deceives” is a common slogan of farmers around Africa. Many people go into farming entirely, or as a side endeavor, with a high certainty they’ll make money and produce more good for all. And when technology is added to the mix, opportunities multiply.

Having the largest area of uncultivated arable land in the world, sub-Saharan Africa, with a young population—nearly 60% is under 25—and a wealth of natural resources, has unparalleled advantages that could double or even triple its current agricultural productivity, according to the Status of Agriculture in 47 Sub-Saharan African Countries, a report the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly published with the International Technology Union (ITU) in March 2022.

Some African countries depend almost entirely on agriculture, like Ethiopia, for example, with 80% of its economy based on it. Jermia Bayisa Lulu, CEO and co-founder of start-up Debo Engineering Agritech, has consolidated his knowledge and experience in computer networking, engineering, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) research to go all in on agritech to solve the problems that affect 85% of community life in his native Ethiopia.

“Our economy is based on agriculture and I believe it should be further supported by technology to increase agricultural productivity,” he says. “Plus, about 20.4 million people in Ethiopia are in need of food aid, which motivates us to solve the problem of agriculture to ensure the lives of millions of people. The same is true for most African countries that need to be supported by technological solutions.”

Like Bayisa Lulu, many believe that technology mixed with agriculture is essential to develop the agricultural sector and improve people’s lives, including Michael Hailu. He is the director of the ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, which brings together 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and European Union member states.

“In agriculture, digitization could be a game changer by boosting productivity, profitability and resilience to climate change,” says Hailu.

In last year’s Digitization of African Agriculture report, which the ACP compiles, it details how 33 million small-scale farmers and pastoralists registered with Digital for Agriculture (D4Ag) solutions across the continent in 2019, adding that it’s expected to rise to 200 million by 2030.

“The stakes are so high it’s not surprising most African countries have made agricultural transformation a major focus of their national strategies,” he adds.

Diverse problems as solutions

On the ground, things are already changing with a multitude of start-ups solving a variety of agricultural problems with drone technology, precision agriculture and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. The scope of technology in this sphere is vast and is an important driver of change.

Youth innovation in Ghana, for instance, continues to exceed expectations according to Kenneth Abdulai Nelson, co-founder and MD of Farm360 Global, a crowdfunding and consulting company dedicated to smart farming projects. He believes that the days when agriculture was not “sexy” to most young people are over, thanks to the technology revolution.

“With the keen interest in developing agriculture through technology, leading centers have initiated and supported training young entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo and develop innovative technological solutions to solve key problems in the agricultural sector,” he says.

He listed AI solutions that today improve the quality of crops or precision agriculture found in the use of drones, robotics, hydroponics, and more.

“AI technology can detect plant diseases, pests and nutritional deficiencies on farms,” he says. “AI sensors can detect and target weeds and areas of poor nutrition and then decide which herbicide or fertilizer to apply in the area.”

Abdulai Nelson also has a personal interest in drones as a proven and effective way to improve agriculture. Indeed, in Ghana and others across the continent, drones are used for mapping, pesticide spraying, soil and data analysis, and farm monitoring to improve productivity while maximizing the use of labor.

He also appreciates the expensive but valuable irrigation technologies being used by some businesses on the continent.

“Anticipating the impacts of climate change emphasizes the need for irrigation technologies to ensure year-round production,” he says. “More than 50% of farmers rely heavily on seasonal rainfall, which continues to change dramatically.”

He also finds that IoT solutions stimulate productivity in the agrarian sector by effectively analyzing data, both historical and current, to inform well thought out activities. Applications are wide-ranging and include deep sensors to help predict rainfall and drought; soil sensors to determine fertilizer application areas; storage sensors to make sure products are stored at favorable temperatures; and input tracking and logistics to reduce post-harvest losses.

Walid Gaddas is a Tunisian consultant in strategy and international development in the agritech sector. He manages STECIA International, a consulting firm in strategy and international development in agriculture that works with global partners around the world, and working with several agritech projects in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, he has observed great potential.

“More countries are aware that agritech is not the agriculture of tomorrow but of today,” he says. “In countries such as Ivory Coast in West Africa, the government has already put in place all the strategies to digitize agriculture. Many activities are being carried out to digitalize the cocoa and rubber sectors.”

Strength of creativity

One of the crucial issues that agriculture in Africa is currently solving, according to Gaddas, is a lack of water. He says that in Senegal, Tunisia and many other countries, companies are working hard on intelligent irrigation, and on how to optimize water resources that are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in the context of climate change and unpredictable rainfall.

“Managing water is becoming crucial,” he says. “We’ve met start-ups that use drones, which, through their precision devices, help to collect data that can be used by farmers, such as the levels of nitrogen from the fields, precise mapping of areas with fertiliser deficits,and others that solve plant disease problems by making diagnoses. There are also ERP systems for farm management and to know what is happening in real time—the management of inputs, fertilizers and more.”

He also appreciated the digital aquaculture companies that allow for very rational management of aquaculture farms, while praising the impressive diversity of solutions.

“The diversity of problems that farmers face in Africa is very wide but creativity is not the weak point of Africans,” he says. “Farmers also generally have issues with small plots, low yields and low productivity, so they often lack the know-how to optimize what little they have.”

So these digital solutions are aimed more at small-scale farmers who are used to working like their parents or grandparents and don’t necessarily have all the knowledge, so technologies can provide them with research results and tell them what they need for their crops, Gaddas says.

Coupled with these data analytics solutions and other related technologies, the most complex problems in agriculture are being solved according to computer scientist Bayisa Lulu.

“Emerging technologies are solving complex problems that seemed to go unsolved in the past decades and without much user involvement, which is a very important, especially for the disadvantaged.”

Success relies on tech

IT leaders are now making their mark in this transformation by helping to identify and develop solutions through implementing agritech accelerator and incubator programs to reduce pressure, risk, food safety and waste.

By doing so, they take a broad and long-term view of key issues in the agricultural space, and serve as the engine behind effecting solutions.

“An operations manager can identify the problem,” says Abdulai Nelson, “but it’s up to the CIO to listen, design and develop the most appropriate technology solution.”

Others agree that the development of agriculture and technology has unlimited possibilities, and it’s the right time to build better bridges between them so agriculture can further benefit from cutting-edge technologies quicker and on a larger scale, according to Gaddas. Education, of course, is key.

“The fact that agronomists are associated with computer scientists makes all the difference because the contribution of technology to agriculture is enormous, and also the agricultural logic integrated by computer scientists transforms things,” he says. “They must be able to enrich each other’s capacities. It’s great to see them working hand in hand changing things in Africa.”

Also, in Tunisia where Gaddas is based, there are many schools for computer engineers geared toward agritech because it’s a booming sector.

“In addition, it’s thanks to the legal framework created in Tunisia four years ago with the Startup act, a law created to encourage the development of Tunisian start-ups with several financial and fiscal support measures,” he says. “So there’s a favorable ecosystem, evidenced by the dozens of agritech companies launched since the creation of this law.”

While most experts like him believe that agriculture is capable of radical and rapid change due to technology, they also believe it transcends the difficulties that slow down the process.

But in Central Africa, for instance, things are a bit different than in other sub-regions. The transformation potential of digital innovations for agri-food systems is poorly initiated there, with less than 5% of the digital agricultural services identified in Africa coming from this region, according to the FAO. “Existing barriers still need to be addressed, including the lack of rural infrastructure, funding for agriculture and investment in research and development, agri-innovation, and agricultural entrepreneurship,”the specialized UN agency says.

Other observers lament digital illiteracy, limited internet access in some rural areas, and electricity difficulties.

But all these problems have solutions, according to Gaddas. Today, farmers who can’t read or write receive audio messages in local languages, and messages in image form via mobile phones in order to overcome the problem of educating farmers.

“For the problems of electricity and internet access, there are also many solutions such as mini solar panels, or 4G and 3G, which cover internet issues in some remote areas,” he says. He’s convinced that technology is now overcoming all these difficulties.  “To receive market prices, for example, you just have to open your phone,” he says. “Even the most basic one can receive the technology and it doesn’t require a PhD in computer science.”

Agriculture Industry, CIO, IT Leadership, Startups

Coding has been an educational trend in Africa for many years, and schools and movements have been created in response to a pressing need and necessity in the digital age. It’s still the case today, except entrepreneurs and companies are now beginning to adopt tools to create applications and develop services that don’t require coding. Those who have taken the plunge are trying to maximize the vast potential of these tools by further educating as many people as possible about them in a continent where the familiarization of digital techniques is not advanced.

Some African entrepreneurs have embarked on a mission to universalize these tools since many ICT professionals report that digital illiteracy in Africa is still a concerning reality.

In its 2021 study on the state of low-code/no-code development around the world and how different regions are approaching it, US cloud computing company Rackspace Technology said that in the EMEA region, the use level is below the global average.

The report shows that the biggest barrier to adoption in this region may be skepticism about the benefits, and of all regions, EMEA is the least likely to say that low-code/no-code is a key trend. It’s also the only region where unclear benefits constitute one of the top three reasons for not adopting low-code/no-code.

“It’s possible that organizations in EMEA don’t have as many models for successful low-code/no-code implementation because EMEA organizations that have implemented it may not be seeing its biggest benefit,” the report says. “Forty-four percent say the ability to accelerate the delivery of new software and applications is a benefit — the lowest percentage of any region.”  

Some West African countries, such as Benin, understand that low-code/no-code tools are innovative and disruptive to the CIO community, but not universally trusted. “The general idea is that low-code/no-code is not yet mature enough to be used on a large scale because of its application to specific cases where security needs and constraints are low,” says Maximilien Kpodjedo, president of the CIO Association of Benin and digital adviser to Beninese president Patrice Talon. “These technologies are at the exploratory or low-use stage.”

However, he notices interest in these technologies is growing among CIOs.

“We have commissions working and thinking about innovative concepts, including a commission of CIOs,” says Kpodjedo. “Even if there were projects, they’re marginal at this stage. This could change in the near future, though, thanks to the interest generated.”

But some other entrepreneurs have taken advantage of it and want others to benefit from what they’ve seen in these tools. Actors and leaders of incubators and educational movements are doing what they can for the sake of those in both technological and non-technological sectors.

Many become coaches or consultants of low-code/no-code for companies while others within incubators or movements lead awareness and training on these technologies.

It’s almost child’s play for some entrepreneurs who use it to automate trivial tasks or create internal software for their companies. They don’t need to be experts in coding or even have deep knowledge of ICT. They sometimes come across a technology by chance and end up adopting it because they see its importance and benefits.

This is a reality described by Kenyan Maureen Esther Achieng, CEO of Nocode Apps, Inc., who got into non-coding technologies by following the advice of Mike Williams, otherwise known as Yoroomie, a friend who built and launched online marketplace community for music studio rentals Studiotime in one night using no code.

“Since then, through constant self-study and countless mentorships from some of the best coaches in the global no code space, I’ve helped hundreds of people get started in technology,” she said.

Achieng has now taken up technology as her “divine mission.” Her company specializes in training non-technical entrepreneurs and start-ups, and she teaches people how to leverage no code technology to launch their applications and websites in hours without writing code or hiring developers.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, software engineer Bigurwa Buhendwa Dom also discovered no code from a relative.

“I had no idea that such technology could exist or at least be so advanced,” he says. “As a software engineer, setting up a working application or even a demo is a real challenge. It takes months or years in some cases. I was fascinated by the speed with which you can build a prototype or a trial version with such a technology, which immediately reduces costs and allows you to test the idea in the market.”

He now offers independent consultations in his country where he has noticed that most people don’t know what it’s about.

A simple environment for companies

Public and private companies also see an opportunity for these services. In Cameroon, for instance, the land credit authority is banking on an agile platform in low code adapted to the needs of application development, as well as the supply of licenses necessary to implement such a platform, how it’s operated, and the production of reports.

In Senegal and Gabon, the French multinational Bolloré Transports and Logistics uses Microsoft’s Power Platform solution to provide employees who use it with a simple environment to create application software without going through traditional computer programming, according to Microsoft, which supported teams with training workshops beforehand, adding that this low-code/no-code approach has enabled Bolloré employees to develop their creativity by appropriating the application creation tools, and move toward faster, more intelligent and optimized processes.

For Jean-Daniel Elbim, director of digital transformation at Bolloré, these tools allow the operational staff to be given more control, but also to bring more agility to the local teams.

“Obviously, the data must be managed,” he says. “We need to define a framework, and there needs to be a group of experts at central level, available to respond to local issues.”

Evangelization and altruistic services

In Chad, ICT expert Salim Alim Assani is co-founder and manager of WenakLabs, a media lab and tech hub incubator described as a niche of Chadian geek talent. According to him, low code is part of daily life of the group’s entrepreneurs.

“We use this tool to set up websites and minimum viable products for our entrepreneurs,” he says. “It’s a real success on projects that don’t require a lot of customization in terms of functionality, from showcase sites to simple mobile applications, for example. We offer a lot of training in this area too. In the framework of certain projects, we’ve initiated 50 young women to the use of low code, particularly the design of websites with WordPress. In the same context, we’re training 25 digital referents, whose daily professional life will be centered on low code. We also regularly organize awareness-raising events on the issue.”

Sesinam Dagadu also makes extensive use of no code at SnooCode, a digital localization solution in Nigeria. Based in London, he’s the founder and CTO of this alphanumeric system that allows addresses to be stored, shared and navigated, even without internet or cellular access.

“I think the biggest place we haven’t used code is on our website,” he says. “We’re creating systems to allow people who build on top of SnooCode to do so using no-code technologies.”

Going ahead without expensive developers

Dagadu appreciates he could do without a developer to use these tools even though he initially used one, which incurred a lot of cost.

“At first we had to employ a web developer who did a lot of work, but it looks horrible using technology like Square Space,” he says. “In Africa, development costs are very high and can only be tackled by companies with a lot of funding. But with the growth of low-code/no-code, more people with bright ideas can bring them to life without the need for expensive developers.”

He noted that because of the popularity problem in Africa of these tools, people believe that every time they have an idea to implement an application or technology, they have to resort to an application developer. But by coding less or not at all, there’s an easier entry into hard code according to WenakLabs’ Assani. “It’s a way to be visible quickly, to offer your services to the world without resorting to the skills of a developer. Above all, you learn through experimentation.”

He sees this as an opportunity to widen the pathway to digital access and entry across Africa. Indeed, entrepreneurs believe these tools will democratize technology and resolve many issues. “This democratization could allow Nocode Apps to be used to solve the most difficult problems not only in Kenya but in Africa in general,” says Achieng. “African problems need technology because the population is young, tech-savvy and uses the internet a lot, so it’s in the interest of Africans to get on board and have more proactive and knowledgeable leadership, especially in IT, to make wise decisions that reflect the speed at which technology and business are changing.”

Africa, Emerging Technology, Innovation, No Code and Low Code