Getting Real About AI for the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid: Improving the Economic Outcomes of Smallholder Farmers in Africa

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Agriculture, a linchpin of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy, confronts formidable challenges, including stagnating productivity and low yields exacerbated by climate change. Agriculture employs an estimated 65-70 percent of Africa’s labor force and accounts for approximately 30-40 percent of its GDP.1 Yet, the continent remains a net importer of food, leading to food price inflationary pressure.2 With yields in Africa trailing other regions like Asia and the Americas, and 60 percent of the available arable land in the world,3  there is ample opportunity for significant improvements. Tools and technologies like better seed varieties, greenhouses, and fertilizers hold promise. This study delves into one of these tools, Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has the potential to help smallholder farmers improve productivity at a low cost. We examine the economic implications of this AI tool for smallholder farmers and rural communities in Sub- Saharan Africa. 

In SSA, over 80% of farms are managed by resource-constrained smallholder farmers (SHFs) who cultivate in challenging circumstances with lower levels of productivity than farmers in the rest of the world.4 Boosting crop yield normally requires significant additional investments—a financial hurdle far too high for the average smallholder farmer, who typically has a lower income and limited access to capital and commodity markets. Farmers are in critical need of tools to mitigate crop losses while minimizing financial burdens. Given that SSA farmers lose an estimated half of their crops to pests each year, a low-cost tool to reduce crop loss could improve the productivity of farms and boost the incomes of farmers.

There are several ways in which the use of data analytics and AI in farming practices can improve crop yields in African farms. Our report takes a specific application: Crop Protection AI (Crop AI), which improves yields through disease detection and pest protection, and is a readily adoptable solution tailored to SSA’s agricultural landscape. Due to its scalability, low entry cost, and alignment with the digital literacy levels of rural farmers, Crop AI stands out as a promising solution. Crop AI technology offers pest and disease diagnosis, deficiency analytics, and precise guidance on pesticide application. This precision prevents indiscriminate pesticide use, reduces pesticide pollution,5 and fosters cost savings for farmers. 

Crop AI technology can address the unique challenges faced by SSA’s SHFs. Beyond tackling crop loss, large-scale adoption of Crop AI empowers farmers with digital tools that enhance productivity, promote sustainability, and contribute to the region’s economic development. 

There are several ways in which AI interventions can affect farmer productivity. The advantage of this AI-enabled solution is its accessibility through any smartphone with internet connectivity and ease of use, requiring minimal digital literacy. For example, using the Plantix app, the one we used for our model, a farmer can take a picture of a sick crop, upload it to the app, and receive a diagnosis and treatment, along with prevention methods for future crops. This information can be delivered via audio in a locally appropriate language, eliminating the requirement for literacy. If deployed, this low-cost, scalable AI solution can make an immediate, measurable impact on SHF productivity, directly addressing the critical issue of crop loss. 

Given that SHFs are often the most economically marginalized, any technology enhancing their revenue directly uplifts these communities. With over a third of the global food supply produced by smallholder farmers,6 Crop AI technology has the potential to create ripple effects on the entire value chain, enhancing food security and aligning with key UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The following evaluation framework assesses the impact of this cost-effective, smartphone-accessible Crop AI tool on crop yield and revenue at both micro and macro levels. This assessment evaluates the technology’s potential to uplift the most vulnerable communities, improve food security, and contribute to sustainable development goals, including SDG 1—reducing poverty, SDG 2—reducing hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture, SDG 4—quality education, SDG 5—gender equality, SDG 8—promoting sustained economic growth, and SDG 10— reducing inequality.

The following report outlines the path to unlocking an additional USD 6.1 billion in revenue across seven SSA countries. Of this improvement, USD 1.5 billion is anticipated to directly impact 14.3 million smallholder farmers growing each country’s top five crops and potentially provide 8.9 million children with access to education annually.

Emerging Insights

A considerable economic opportunity is on the horizon for Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) agricultural sector, forecasting an estimated USD 2.7 billion revenue upswing through the adoption of a streamlined Crop AI technology. The realization of this transformative impact is contingent upon the active participation of seven agriculture-dominant economies: Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Importantly, this growth can be achieved without necessitating additional technological adjustments. 

The implementation of the policies recommended in this study promises a substantial revenue gain in addition to the already expected USD 2.7 billion; policy implementation can increase economy-wide dividends by USD 3.4 billion, culminating in a USD 6.1 billion surge in revenue for the agricultural sector and the economy as a whole. 

This economic boost is poised to directly benefit between 6.4 million and 14.2 million smallholder farmers (SHFs), a demographic typically positioned at the lower echelons of the economic spectrum. The supplemental USD 653 million to USD 1.5 billion in direct revenue to farmers holds the potential to markedly improve living conditions for SHFs, leading to better outcomes in areas such as nutrition and education. 

An expected average rise in individual farmer revenue by USD 102 per planting cycle emphasizes the concrete and prompt influence on the economic well-being of this vulnerable demographic. While this additional revenue may appear modest, its impact on farmers’ living expenses is significant. For instance, in the examined countries, despite government subsidies for elementary and secondary education, households still bear additional financial responsibilities such as the cost of books and uniforms. Notably, one in five children ages 6 to 11 are out of school, and only two-thirds of children between ages 12 to 14 are in school in Sub- Saharan Africa.10 The increased revenue from adopting this technology can readily contribute to educating at least 8.9 million farmers’ children across these countries annually in public elementary or secondary schools, thereby enhancing families’ prospects of breaking free from poverty. 

Moreover, recognizing and addressing the pervasive gender gap in technology adoption within each nation emerges as a critical consideration. A strategic initiative to bridge this gap has the potential to reach an additional 810,200 to 1.8 million women farmers growing the top five crops, unlocking an estimated USD 80.7 million to USD 181.8 million in added revenue for this demographic. This two-pronged strategy—closing both the AI and gender adoption gaps—not only assures economic growth but also addresses vital socio-economic disparities within the agricultural landscape of SSA. 

Implications for Action

Increase Rural Electrification​

Explore partnerships with standalone electricity providers, exemplified by companies like Husk, to introduce sustainable solutions in areas with underdeveloped or absent grids.

Deploy power banks to supplement electricity supply in regions facing intermittent power availability.

Improve Internet Access

Prioritize initiatives aimed at improving internet access, particularly in remote areas, to bridge the digital divide. 

Develop targeted programs to address gender disparities in internet usage, ensuring inclusivity. 

Advocate for increased competition within the telecommunication sector to drive down costs and enhance overall accessibility. 

Expand Access to Smartphones

Implement financial measures, including tax reduction, subsidies, and small/microfinance loans, to enhance the affordability and accessibility of smartphones, with a focus on closing the gender gap.

Channel financial resources through established networks such as cooperatives, microfinance banks, and government-led MSME loan programs.

Enhance Functional Literacy

Provide comprehensive training programs for trusted intermediaries such as local extension workers and farmers’ cooperative representatives, equipping them to effectively train and troubleshoot with farmers. 

Empower stakeholders, including application developers and agronomists, to deliver impactful training sessions directly to farmers, individually or in groups. 

Incorporate language translation features into applications, mirroring successful models like the incorporation of Microsoft-funded ChatGPT into WhatsApp in India,7 to overcome language barriers and enhance user experience. 

Foster Trust in Technology in Rural Communities

Acknowledge the skepticism that rural residents hold towards novel and unfamiliar technologies. Farmers are more open to advice from familiar and trusted sources. As such, engage local extension workers, community representatives, and farmer cooperatives in targeted marketing initiatives around Crop AI tools.

Develop a Vibrant AI Culture

Forge collaborative partnerships with local NGOs and foundations specializing in coding education for young talent. For instance, establish strategic alliances, akin to the Happy Coders Academy of Global Partnership for Education or associations with NGOs like Pearls Africa Foundation, to drive a culture of AI adoption.

Conduct hands-on training programs involving technologists, agronomists and crop protection experts, utilizing local crop imagery for the development of tailored treatment recommendations.

Beyond Access Case Studies

Innovation drives global sustainability with private sector involvement unlocking immense value. Case studies emphasize tech’s role in fostering inclusion, using insights from the Nine A’s.


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