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Farmers work on a field outside Lichtenburg in North West. File Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Farmers work on a field outside Lichtenburg in North West. File Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Is Africa’s agricultural industry the new frontier for mobile operators?

Such a development is feasible if one considers the mobile industry has already reshaped the financial services industry in Africa and mobile operators have become the leaders in fintech. 

Safaricom’s M-Pesa, owned by Vodacom, and MTN’s MoMo (Mobile Money) have dramatically expanded financial inclusion across the continent and offer a secure and affordable platform.

Can Vodacom and MTN do the same in agriculture?

It is no secret that the world is facing a food security crisis of unprecedented proportions, the largest in modern history.

The humanitarian organisation World Food Programme (WFP) notes that conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate shocks and the threat of global recession have left millions food-insecure and at risk of hunger.

The WFP says the interplay of these factors makes life harder every day for the world’s most vulnerable and is undoing recent development gains. Estimates by the organisation are that no fewer than 828-million people go to bed hungry every night. Last year in November the world population reached eight billion people, according to the UN.

All indications are that the world needs to produce more food than before. And to do so, farmers need access to more data to enable them to optimise farms, anticipate natural disasters such as flooding and droughts, anticipate outbreaks of pests and diseases, and predict the best time to harvest their crops.

Vodacom is already tapping into Africa’s vast agribusiness opportunities and helping agriculture reshape itself through technology. 

Through its subsidiary Mezzanine, Vodacom is digitalisation agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.

At the heart of this is Mezzanine’s smart farming platform, the Connected Farmer, which helps improve smallholder farmers’ productivity, yields and resilience by connecting them to information, inputs, credit and buyers.

The platform already supports more than 230,000 smallholder farmers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, SA, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. 

It is likely to be extended to Ethiopia, a new market that Vodacom has entered in partnership with Safaricom.

To support larger commercial farmers, Mezzanine has developed MyFarmWeb, a cloud-based web platform.

MyFarmWeb helps farmers adopt precision agriculture by using the Internet of Things to improve data-driven decision-making.

More than 8,500 farmers use MyFarmWeb, which has mapped 2.9-million hectares of farmland in Africa.

In addition, the company, owned by Vodacom, trained more than 2,150 women farmers in 2022 on how to use technology to build their businesses and participate in the economy in meaningful ways.

Mezzanine also provides smallholder farmers with access to agricultural inputs, financial services such as insurance, logistics providers, buyers, markets and knowledge.

In the DRC, Mezzanine has worked with AgroMwinda, a web-based platform that has more than 90,600 farmers as subscribers.

Together they have provided training to 10,000 rural women and girls in the use of new technologies and mobile solutions for smart agriculture. 

The company also helped digitalise 2,500 farmer associations in the DRC through M-Pesa.

In Tanzania, Mezzanine connects smallholder farmers to a wealth of information and resources through M-Kulima. 

M-Kulima provides timely weather forecasts to help farmers adapt to climate change and offers vital market information.

Through the digitalisation of agriculture and the use of technology in the sector, Vodacom and Mezzanine are reshaping the future of food production in Africa.

They are helping farmers to unlock economic opportunities.

Through Mezzanine, Vodacom is building an ecosystem of partners ready to deliver industry-standard end-to-end services and solutions that are easy for farmers to use.

Vodacom and other telecom companies are ideally positioned to help farmers benefit from smart agriculture, which requires ubiquitous communications coverage.

As a pioneer, Mezzanine is likely to play an important role in connecting farmers with device and equipment manufacturers, data analytics companies, systems integrators and outsourcing providers. 

The scale of Vodacom and its parent company Vodafone will enable Mezzanine to provide small and large farmers with access to these opportunities at an affordable price.

In SA, however, smart farming is being held back by the shortage of skills. Therefore the government and farmers have an important role to play in ensuring farm workers acquire the necessary skills.

The Vodafone-owned telecom company is laying the groundwork for smart agriculture and all other stakeholders should do their bit to help make the continent food-secure. 

MTN seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to providing solutions to the agriculture industry.

• Lourie is the founder and editor of TechFinancials.

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