Grand claims vs realities in the digitalization of agriculture in Ghana: Promises and risks of an emerging trend

Research in Progress Seminar with Fabio Gatti, Nicholas Atanga and Oane Visser

Fabio Gatti

PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation group (KTI) of Wageningen University.

Profile Fabio Gatti
Associate professor

Dr Oane Visser

Associate Professor in Agrarian Studies


Sam Nicholas Atanga

Recently graduated from ISS with an MA in Development Studies

MA thesis on digital technologies in agriculture
Thursday 14 Oct 2021, 13:00 - 14:00
Spoken Language
Online via Zoom
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What are the impacts of the digital transformation of agriculture in Ghana?

Dr Oane Visser, Fabio Gatti and Sam Nicholas Atanga examine how digital innovations could reshape farming practices and rural areas.

Digital innovation in agricultural settings is a topic of rising importance for social sciences, development studies and critical agrarian studies due to the rapid increase of capital investments in digital agriculture (FAO 2019), and the far-reaching implications it could have through reshaping farming practices and rural areas. Drones, digital apps, and a vast range of sensors for measuring temperature, humidity, soil moisture combined with Big Data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are believed to hold the potential of sustaining an agricultural transformation being able to provide a triple-win solution to the problems of global food security, climate change and (rural) poverty.

Africa, with more than 60% of the population employed in the rural sector and relatively low agricultural yields, has become the main target of this recent trend. A wide range of actors, ranging from national governments, international development agencies and donors, Big Tech companies, agribusiness multinationals and domestic start-ups, has in fact started to target African smallholders with the promise of empowering them with the help of digital means, within an international development agenda centred around notions like ‘climate smart agriculture for Africa’ (Newell & Taylor 2018) or ‘the new Green Revolution for Africa”, an opportunity that the continent, having failed to seize before, cannot afford to miss this time. Ghana (together with Kenya, Nigeria) is one of the major African hubs in this recent trend of promoting digital agriculture on the continent (AGRF 2019, Tsan et al 2019).

Nuancing the picture of digitalizing agriculture as an easy, non problematic and not problematizable process

Despite such strong increase in donor investments and Big Tech interest in digital technologies for agriculture in the Global South, however, very limited social science research has examined how digital innovations are impacting smallholder farmers and rural workers in those geographies, especially to what regards the more political, societal and cultural aspects of such transformations. Our research represents one of the few empirical assessments of the impacts of the digital transformation of agriculture in Africa, specifically in Ghana, and aims at challenging the triple-win solution narrative as well as nuancing the picture of digitalizing agriculture as an easy, non problematic and not problematizable process for empowering small scale farmers and improving agricultural production.

Based on qualitative research methodology and making use of in-depth interviews with some key stakeholders ranging from farmers and farmers’ associations to government officials and AgTech startup owners and developers, we discuss some of the tensions between the grand claims of policymakers and international donors and the realities we encountered on the ground.

By highlighting

1. the limited accessibility of such technologies for most small scale farmers;
2. the ambiguous and complex role of these technologies in empowering smalloholder farmers in their daily practices and
3. the often overlooked importance of farmers’ data for value extraction in most companies business models,

we conclude that the discourses of policy makers, tech companies and international donors around the digitalization of agriculture in Africa must be carefully scrutinized.

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