Technology’s Role in African Human Development

Guest post by John Schellhase, Program Assistant at the NYU Development Research Institute (DRI).

A counterpoint to more hopeful dispatches from Africa, the African Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) describes a continent facing a number of challenges.  Focused entirely on the issue of “food security,” the report concludes that 218 million Africans are malnourished.

Released at the end of May, at about the same time the G-8 unveiled the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the 190-page document is another signal that food security will be a central theme of official development policy in the coming years.  The authors argue that addressing hunger and malnutrition is a prerequisite to improvements in education, health, and household income.

The report has much to say about technology. 

First, the authors see technology as a core component of the report’s foremost appeal: the need to boost agricultural productivity.  As they put it, “Local agricultural capacity is the bedrock of food security in sub-Saharan Africa.” Better seeds, better fertilizers, and better irrigation, all made possible through technological advances, can multiply agricultural yields without requiring more land and more water.

Second, as youth become disenchanted with the traditional agriculture of their parents, modern advances can be a way to bring them back to family farms.  As the report states,

“Technology and innovation can create enticing and profitable openings, enterprises and occupations along the value chain of a sector that young people have come to denigrate as a backwater. Connecting three assets—a bulging youth population, advances in innovation and the promise of agricultural development—is a natural way forward for many countries.”

UNDP, however, is not entirely optimistic about technology, which they call “double-edged.”  The authors worry that innovations designed hundreds of miles away will fail when applied in rural communities.  Planned, top-down interventions can be extremely disruptive and often offer uncertain results.  The authors make an appeal for researchers to consider local knowledge: “Research that embraces local farmers’ knowledge as part of the technology for improving yields can deliver results where blinkered laboratory designs have failed.”  In other words, the initiatives that will succeed in coming years will combine the best of modern innovation with genuine respect for the knowledge and desires of local communities.

Finally, the report contains a section on the special role of information technology.  It describes an assessment in Niger, similar to the evaluation that NYU’s Center for Technology and Economic Development (CTED) is conducting in Ghana that shows that farmers with mobile devices that allowed them to track crop prices started planting more profitable produce.  The report also highlights innovations such as Kenya’s M-Pesa money transfers, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, and Esoko’s mobile devices for farmers in Ghana.  The authors undercut these exciting developments with a degree of pessimism, pointing out that a large number of rural Africans do not have access to mobile technology.  Today’s lack of access, though, could easily be interpreted as a new market for investment.  As the African Human Development Report itself points out,

“When farmers, transporters, sellers and buyers communicate regularly and rapidly, prices become more transparent, transaction times fall and the bargaining power of small producers increases.”

Technology will play an essential role in opening markets to Africa’s farmers.  We can hope that as it does so, more and more people will move from malnourished and poor to well fed and prosperous.

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About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
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