The State of Digital Transformation in Ethiopian Agriculture

ATI officials and policymakers are eager to use digital innovation to improve agricultural productivity as the sector’s contribution to the national GDP declines – down to 32% in 2021 from 47% a decade ago. The administration’s 10-year perspective plan highlights structural challenges inhibiting sectoral growth. These include uncoordinated agricultural land administration, a lack of technology, and low access to finance and investment

Part I, Public sector innovation

The Agricultural Transformation Institute (ATI) has been a key agent in recent efforts to make use of digital innovation in the Ethiopian agricultural sector.  

The former Agency came to life in late 2010, following a two-year diagnostic study conducted with the support of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

The Institute’s founding regulations mandate it to conduct studies to identify and propose solutions for systematic bottlenecks in the agriculture sector, including the adoption of technology. Other mandates include implementing selected impactful projects, creating linkage and coordination, and providing implementation support to the Ministry of agriculture and its structure. 

The ATI has thus far run 48 projects and conducted well over 250 studies. Part of the work was under the Institute’s digital agriculture department, which was established with the denomination of “ICT in Agriculture Program” shortly after the Institution itself to oversee all digital Agri activities.

ATI officials and policymakers are eager to use digital innovation to improve agricultural productivity as the sector’s contribution to the national GDP declines – down to 32% in 2021 from 47% a decade ago. 

The Government’s 10-year perspective plan highlights structural challenges inhibiting sectoral growth. These include uncoordinated agricultural land administration, a lack of technology, and low access to finance and investment. 

The Institute includes fostering digital agriculture as a key focus area in its 10-year strategic plan.

“Create digital solutions to key constraints in the agricultural extension and advisory services system by identifying and implementing prioritized projects – in alignment to existing national strategies for agriculture, agricultural extension, and digital transformation,” reads the plan. 

Over the years, the Institute has developed various ICT-enabled agricultural services that are progressively gaining acceptance in the sector. 

8028 Hotline: The Farmer’s Internet

Ethiopia has the largest agricultural extension network in Africa. Various iterations of agri-extension have been implemented since the first extension program was tested nearly a century ago during the Imperial era.

The agri extension service network has since ballooned to include close to 70,000 extension workers. Services are delivered to farmers in the form of one to five groups and are available at both regional and wereda structure levels. 

Despite the wide network and the resources dedicated to it, officials want to see improvements in the extension service. Among the primary challenges is the observable deterioration in quality of training programmes – and service – as it is cascaded down to the farmers. Training programmes are also resource and time intensive. 

A low extension worker-to-farmer ratio (1 for every 200) limits the level of in-person attention and support that farmers can expect to get. Limitations in the ability to disseminate important information and warnings have also been a concern. 

ATI’s 8028 hotline was conceived as a prospective solution to these problems. 

ATI, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute, and Ethio telecom, began piloting the hotline in 2014 with a focus on high-value horticultural crops, particularly vegetables, along with the digitization of valuable information on efficient cultivation methods. 

As internet penetration in Ethiopia is low, experts at the ATI decided to go with the best available outlet – mobile phones. Recent data from Ethio telecom reveals the state-owned operator serves 64.5 million mobile voice users, not accounting for duplicate numbers.  

In 2014, the hotline service officially launched in 21 weredas in three languages: Amharic, Afaan Oromo, and Tigrigna. The service provided essential information about the cultivation of seven major crops. This included best practices for seeding, plowing, irrigation, and fertilizer and chemical use. 

At first, the service only offered a call-in option where farmers were provided with pre-recorded information in their language of choice, pertaining to location and type of crop. The Institute has since introduced additional features, such as an alert system, a help desk, and a surveying tool. 

Farmers’ basic information is recorded when they make a call, and alerts are transmitted based on location data in the case of risks such as plant disease. 

The help desk was adopted in hopes of addressing more specific queries not covered by the pre-recorded content. Users pose questions through voice recordings and system administrators assign one of the 600 agricultural experts residing in 300 weredas to address them. These experts work on a volunteer basis but are subject to stringent recruitment criteria – a graduate degree is a must – and receive extensive training. ATI collaborated with Digital Green to develop this module. 

The help desk has thus far received 23,000 queries, 19,000 of which were valid enough to receive a response. 

The Institute is also disseminating various surveys to assess agricultural inefficiencies. This is done through a survey tool initiated during the 2014-15 wheat rust outbreak in partnership with the International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), which had offered its help to identify diseases before they spread. 

One and a half million interviewees have participated in surveys thus far. 

In a few years, the hotline has grown to accommodate basic information for 21 crops, livestock, COVID-19 and financial literacy. It is implemented in six languages, adding Siddamuu, Wolaittato and Somali.

Its user base has also grown to six million, recording a total of 62 million calls. The Oromia and Amhara regions account for the largest share at 15.3 million and 12.6 million calls, respectively. Women account for an estimated 27-30% of users. 

The hotline can accommodate up to 330 calls simultaneously (210 dedicated for incoming and the rest for outgoing calls). It was designed by eCom Technologies, a local firm, although foreign companies developed features like the help desk. The ATI has also partnered with Ethio telecom to enable farmers to utilize the service free of charge. 

National Market Information System

The hotline, increased agricultural productivity, and improved market awareness brought with them visible demand for accurate and up-to-date market information. 

In 2017, the ATI collaborated with the Ministry of Trade and the Federal Cooperative Commission to conduct a diagnostic study to assess various market systems previously introduced by government agencies and development partners. Some of these systems were digitized, manual or semi-digitized. 

The study discovered some key issues. Chief among them were the absence of a uniform data collection system and the subsequent poor data quality. Officials saw the need to establish a modern, digitized national market information system and selected the ATI as an implementing partner. 

The first phase of development ran for two years beginning 2019, and comprised the deployment of basic functionalities on five crops (teff, wheat, maize, sesame, and haricot bean) and their 11 varieties in 157 geographic locations spread across five regions.  

The system collects and displays minimum and maximum prices offered by producers, wholesalers, and retailers. To avoid a repeat of the previous data quality issues, data collectors are chosen from within the lower administrative structure of the Ministry of Trade. 

Collectors are required to observe at least five transactions within their respective marketplace when compiling data. Their activity is monitored through GPS and inserted data is also triangulated for better accuracy. The data includes information on crop supply levels. 

Via the 6077 hotline, farmers call in to listen to market information of their choice. The information is also available online through a web platform.

One million callers have accessed information on 100,000 market data entries thus far. Callers have made six million requests for information. 

It is not only farmers benefiting either. For instance, the warehouse receipt system project led by the Ministry of Trade and the International Financial Corporation (IFC) is also tapping in. The project enables farmers to deposit their crops in a warehouse, which they can then use as collateral to access credit. Project implementers use ATI market information to cross-reference prices. The Institute is working to incorporate 10 more crop types and 150 marketplaces in the scheme. Its experts are also working on a digital market linkage platform to link producers with buyers. It will serve as a digital marketplace for agricultural commodities.

2 Responses

  1. Good development. Good Agronomy supported by digital technologies and connectivity for inputs, marketing etc wii go a long way. If someone is interested, I can share our papers on digital agriculture. I can be contacted at evsprakasarao@gmail.com.
    Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *