It is almost dry season in the Sahel and millions are already facing food shortages. The constant swings between parching droughts and turbulent floods make farming difficult in this semi-arid region on the edge of Africa’s Sahara Desert. 

The challenges these farmers face underscore the severe impact of extreme weather on agricultural production. The weather extremes have also exacerbated problems caused by the chronic underdevelopment of agriculture — reliance on a handful of crops limits the nutritional value of farmers’ harvests, for instance.

The impact on global hunger is now evident. After years of steady decline, hunger and malnutrition rates are rising. Today almost 821 million people are chronically hungry and roughly one-third of women of childbearing age suffer from anemia. It is an alarming sign that food systems are not keeping pace with our needs. 

A key way to reverse this trend is by giving smallholder farmers — particularly women — access to the financing, information and training they need to build thriving farms. Furthermore, these resources must be delivered in a manner that promotes new ways of doing things — planting of more nutritious crops; preparing foods in ways that capture their full nutritional value. There is enormous potential for agriculture that is intentionally focused on nutrition-rich practices. This is especially true for women farmers, who produce almost half of the world’s food supply and who are primarily responsible for feeding their families and safeguarding the health of their children.

Today, new disruptive digital technologies are starting to provide solutions. 

Access to financing

Globally, smallholder farmers get less than 3 percent of the funding they need because they are viewed as risky investments. Yet their operations generate a rich trove of data on their capabilities and results. Today, companies are increasingly using this data to give lenders a more comprehensive assessment of farmers, enabling them to receive vital financing to rejuvenate farms and invest in better equipment and inputs to increase their production. 

Grameen Foundation’s work with Musoni Microfinance in Kenya is one example of an all-digital agricultural loan designed to meet the specific needs of smallholder farmers by matching their crop and cash cycles.  Furthermore, loans delivered to local women’s groups are accompanied by agricultural training that support the diversification of crops and livestock for improved income and health.

Agricultural advice

Agricultural extension officers often have little time to give farmers up-to-date training and advice because of the officers’ overloaded caseloads. As a result, farmers rely on outdated techniques. Mobile technology is helping to fill the gap by providing farmers with targeted, up-to-date advice derived from data collected from their farms.

Launched in 2013, mNutrition is a global initiative organized by the GSMA and implemented by mobile phone network operators. Working in 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, it uses mobile phone-based messaging services to provide information and promote behavior change around key areas related to nutrition, childcare and agriculture. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million farmers had made changes in several areas from planting to land management to harvest and storage practices after receiving advice.

The focus on women

In Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa, 1 in 3 children under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting, which reduces brain development and their ability to learn and develop normally. Faced with this grim reality, in 2017, the government launched a national Mobile Nutrition Program. The Federal Ministry of Health, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, GSMA and Grameen Foundation had collaborated to develop and pilot life-saving nutrition content via mobile phones. After extensive research in to local conditions and knowledge, a total of more than 1,000 SMS and voice messages were crafted and translated into five local languages, with content that covers women of reproductive age, pregnancy, newborns, infants and children under five. The in-depth messaging included a close look a locally available, nutrient rich foods that women could either grow or purchase in their communities.

Nutrition, agriculture and health are intimately linked, and today, they can be consciously linked through programming that takes advantage of mobile phones that are now in nearly every community, if not every pocket.