“Innovating Food Systems in East Africa’ is a study produced by Briter Bridges and the World Food Programme (WFP), focused on the state of play for innovative, digital, and technology-driven solutions that are improving the food system across five countries in East Africa. Over the past half-decade, there has been proliferation of startups and entrepreneurs that are providing technological, accessible, and affordable tools to increase agricultural productivity and efficiency along the different nodes of the food system, from farm management apps, to smart irrigation products, and supply chain management software, helping farmers adapt to, and mitigate both internal and external shocks to the value chain. Solutions extend beyond mere agritech companies, as the food system is to be understood more broadly and being supported by a combination of auxiliary sectors, which allow for more productive and structured processes from the producer to the consumer. These include, among others, finance, logistics, and energy.
The innovative ecosystem concurring to a healthy food system includes the variety of supportive organisations that assist entrepreneurs, such as investors, tech hubs, research organisations, and donors. These play a critical role in creating an enabling environment for the food system innovators to grow and scale. The engagement and interaction of these players is crucial, as risk-aversion to the space has meant that funding and targeted support to food system innovators has been marginal compared to other tech-driven sectors, such as fintech or e-commerce, despite being an area with incredibly high impact potential. Aside from the availability of capital, farmers’ willingness and capacities to try new technologies, user adoption of internet and mobile data, female representation in agriculture, and a fragmented support system remain some of the biggest obstacles for entrepreneurs to thrive in East Africa. Similar trends are found across all of the five countries in the study, though the size and state of the ecosystems differ substantially. Kenya is one of the forerunners of ‘agritech’ on the continent, with both startups and support organisations that have gained significant traction in recent years. While the country still has some way to go in terms of food security and childhood stunting, a lot of progress has been made to improve the conditions of the food system. In contrast, South Sudan’s nascent startup ecosystem is primarily recipient of development and donor funding, and is yet to see a sophisticated entrepreneurial scene appear. Acute food insecurity remains very high, and subsistence farming dominates the agricultural landscape.
Addressing these challenges is of utmost importance, as a healthy and thriving private sector can help tapping into the largely underexplored opportunity to digitise services and transform East Africa’s food supply chain. One way to achieve this consists of facilitating the growth of a supporting framework for entrepreneurs, ensuring access to resources, financing, and skills needed to develop solutions that create more resilient and sustainable development of the food system. This report explores what type of innovations are being used across East Africa to address food security, and begins by providing a socio-economic context to then analyse the different stages of ecosystem development in each respective country. Finally, it stresses the fact that innovators alone are not a panacea and that numerous challenges remain. In this regard, system thinking and multi-stakeholder approaches, such as partnerhips, offer a way to improve food system’s quality, access, and delivery.