Blog: Laying the tracks of Africa’s e-commerce environment for smallholder farmers

Evidence suggests that a smallholder-inclusive e-commerce revolution is possible in Africa. But how do we start to lay the tracks for this coming revolution to run on? In his latest blog, Mandla Nkomo, Managing Director of Solidaridad Southern Africa, argues that social networks need to be transformed into commercial networks, and traditional models for energy, infrastructure and logistics need to be rethought.

Laying the tracks for a smallholder inclusive e-commerce revolution in Africa

“How can countries create the right conditions to support effective, secure, and inclusive digital platforms?” This was the question outgoing World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, asked technology pioneer Jack Ma during their conversation at Disrupting Development last year. 

Jack Ma said that, in his view, Africa has similar conditions to those that existed in China when he started working in e-commerce almost two decades ago. In his mind, the key ingredients for success in sparking an e-commerce revolution will be:

  • sound internet infrastructure
  • a vibrant entrepreneurial class
  • good education system
  • e-government. 

When one looks at this list, it is easy to be exasperated by the material conditions on the ground in Africa. So what are the practical things that can be done to move closer to having the critical mass of conditions that will propel the continent to an e-commerce driven reality?

It’s no longer a question of asking: ‘should value chains that rely on smallholders become part of an e-commerce environment?’ – it’s rather a question of ‘how?’ and ‘when?'

It goes without saying that unlocking the promise of digital technology for smallholder agriculture and rural commerce is the next frontier in Africa. However, if the promise of digital is to be realized, a lot of disruption must take place. In the midst of the disruption, we need to be building the infrastructure within which this e-commerce revolution can thrive.

By definition, e-commerce is about the buying and selling of goods using the internet as the medium through which some, or all, of the trade takes place. By the ubiquitous nature of the internet, it will soon become impossible to transact or conduct business without, at some point, using the internet. 

Payment systems, getting the appropriate devices into farmers’ hands, network building, smart logistics, digitally enabled farming systems, reliable energy systems, advanced telecommunications; all will need to go through fundamental changes on the African continent for the promise of e-commerce to be fully realized.

The context within which this must happen is an Africa that must feed itself first, along with feeding the rest of the world in the process. It is a context in which rapid urbanization is taking place (the proportion of the population living in cities is estimated to reach the 50% mark by 2030), forming mega cities, and a very young population that must, in a short space of time, find meaningful vocations to contribute to reversing Africa’s US$32bn food import bill, and tap into the US$1 trillion continental food opportunity. 

Solidaridad boldly declared in 2016 that, as an organization, we need to adopt a data-driven approach to become part of the solution, or soon become irrelevant. This declaration came after the recognition that the developing world in which we are working will be disrupted by digital technologies. So, what needs to be done? 

Read Mandla Nkomo's blog in full to find out how digitally enabled farming, payment systems, appropriate devices, building networks, smart logistics, reliable energy and smart infrastructure can support an inclusive e-commerce revolution for smallholder farmers in Africa.