Overcoming the barriers to technology adoption on African farms

Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural sector is widely recognized to have vast, under-utilized potential. Land and labor productivity are low compared to other regions and have barely increased over the last 20 years. Low productivity has created widespread rural poverty and food insecurity, so the potential for productivity increases represents an opportunity to boost inclusive growth.

The optimistic narratives around African farmers’ adoption of technology often overlook the more long-standing challenges they face that are preventing the adoption of much older productivity-increasing technology, such as fertilizers and conventionally produced hybrid seeds. For digital agriculture to be effective and transformational in Africa, a concerted effort to address Africa’s long-standing agricultural productivity challenges is needed.

Possible applications include:

  • Farmer-tailored digital information platforms could help farmers quickly obtain knowledge.
  • Internet-connected sensors (internet of things, or IOT technology) could help farmers track soil composition, crop growth progress, weather effects, and the presence of disease, allowing farmers to react swiftly to problems such as a lack of water or nutrient deficiencies. IOT technology can also monitor post-harvest storage conditions to ensure that spoilage does not occur.
  • High-productivity, disease-resistant seed varieties developing using CRISPR gene-editing technology could reduce risk to farmers while increasing yields.

Why have 4IR technologies spread so slowly on African farms?
One reason for the slow pace of technology diffusion in the African agricultural sector is limited internet access. Other perhaps more important obstacles to technology diffusion are agricultural policies and contexts that make technological adoption unappealing for farmers. According to recent surveys of the state of agricultural technology adoption in Africa, context-specific constraints have hindered the adoption of existing technology (such as fertilizer and hybrid seeds) and will probably limit the adoption of 4IR technology on the farm shortly. 

These challenges include:

  • Limited supplies, high prices, and uncertain quality of modern inputs increase the risk associated with technology adoption.
  • Uncertain and limited rainfall and lack of irrigation and other systems of water management.
  • Lack of secure land tenure, which deters on-farm investment and is leading to declining soil fertility.
  • Poor roads and minimal information and telecommunications infrastructure, resulting in high transportation costs and greater information frictions and marketing transaction costs, causing farmers to receive a smaller share of the final product price.
  • Low public investment in agriculture, especially in research and development (R&D), so few science-based options can be tailored to sub-Saharan Africa’s many microclimates. The past 20 years have brought important changes to African agriculture. Africa recorded the highest average annual production growth rate of all regions in the world—nearly 4%. Innovation in producing high-value-added export crops, such as cut flowers in East Africa and pineapples in Ghana, contributed to productivity improvements, though innovation and productivity improvements in food crops have lagged.

What can be done?
A recent survey of research on African agricultural technology use and productivity gains concluded that much more remains to be learned about how to increase technology adoption and productivity on African farms. The authors suggest that given the multiple constraints farmers face, multi-faceted interventions at the local and national levels may be required. In thinking about how to encourage technology adoption on African farms, are suggest that:

  • Governments need to continue to support agricultural research and development, an investment with very high rates of return. Donors and supporters should work with research institutes to help deploy technology advances such as CRISPR to speed up the process and allow the effective development of high-yielding and disease-resistant seeds.
  • Energy and transportation infrastructure investments in rural areas should remain a high priority. While supply chains are disrupted when power is unavailable, goes out, or perishable items are not able to reach their destination promptly.
  • Given the heterogeneity of farmer conditions and needs, NGO- and private sector-led farmer-tailored programs may be required, whether related to land and farm management, access to markets, access to finance, or value chains, among others. Local governments can help support this approach. Stakeholder attention should be directed at fostering, evaluating, and, if successful, scaling up these programs.
  • Innovators and entrepreneurs need to develop and scale appropriate technologies that address the most urgent challenges faced by farmers and are affordable enough to be systematically used productively.


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