The COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into disarray, but in Africa, life continues: farmers farm, merchants sell, people apply for capital to create jobs and improve livelihoods, and a heightened need for access to healthcare underpins it all. But on a continent with widespread inequality, where over half of the population is still excluded from the formal economy, and one in three lacks formal proof of identity – the task to go from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’, is an even greater challenge. This is particularly critical at a time when there is a global food crisis in the making.

Still, a silver lining exists. In villages, farms, cities, clinics and communities across Africa, a digital evolution is underfoot, one that started even before the pandemic. While there are significant gaps in infrastructure and internet access, mobile phones proliferate, making the continent fertile soil for the adoption of innovative solutions that create new value chains and wider access to financial tools.

Take farming for instance. In Africa, farmers face significant challenges, including limited access to markets, access to working capital to secure quality seeds and pesticides, and access to relevant financial tools to pay and get paid efficiently. Millions of farmers across Africa work incredibly hard to make a subsistence living. For whole communities to truly thrive, the people working the land need a sustainable farming model which helps farmers move from subsistence production to more commercial production and does so in a way that is fair and transparent to all parties.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is perhaps the most vital source of livelihoods, with over 60% of the population being smallholder farmers. Even more profound is that economic growth from agriculture is estimated to be between two to four times more effective at reducing extreme poverty than any other sector,” says Michael Froman, Mastercard vice chairman and president of strategic growth. “With greater investment, digitization and support, many countries have the potential to increase food production, reduce costly imports, promote rural livelihoods and reduce poverty. And Farm Pass can be a critical part of that equation.”

Farm Pass is a digital platform that Mastercard launched in 2015, bringing together various agri-sector stakeholders from the supply and demand sides in one agricultural marketplace. Smallholder farmers can access a stable marketplace with transparent pricing, enabling them to command higher prices, and quality inputs and agricultural advisory services to increase harvest productivity. It is transforming agricultural ecosystems and connecting farmers to the formal financial system, also providing them with a digital record that could support future loan applications. During the pandemic, farmers were able to sell produce at 25%-50% higher prices by connecting directly with buyers in Farm Pass, even though local markets were closed.

On his recent visit to the Masaka district in Uganda, where Robusta is the main coffee variety grown, Froman experienced the positive impact of Farm Pass first-hand in his interaction with farmers at a local cooperative, the Kibinge Farmer Producer Organization, which streamlines production efforts. At Kibinge, over 3,400 farmers have registered for Farm Pass. Across Africa, Farm Pass has already helped roughly 659,000 smallholder farmers access better prices.

Kibonde Christine Nabukeera, one of the Kibinge coffee farmers, says: “Before I used to spend money on transportation, but now I can sell my produce from home and wait for an update on my phone. Also, all the prices of e-Farm inputs are easily accessible, including the change in prices.”

“Before we launched Farm Pass, these farmers struggled with a long sales process, delayed payments and manual navigation of complicated paper trails, in addition to the risk that paper records could be lost,” continues Froman. “But now, these farmers are more optimistic about the potential of their farming operations. It shows the immense impact that digital inclusion can have in driving commerce and creating a path toward greater financial security. And the fact that it can be used offline as well as online is extremely valuable to smallholder farmers who often operate in low connectivity settings.”

Michael Froman (centre), vice chairman and president of strategic growth for Mastercard, tours the Masaka district in Uganda, to learn how Farm Pass is helping smallholder farmers at a local cooperative, the Kibinge Farmer Producer Organization access better prices.

Soon, more farmers will discover its benefits as a result of the partnership between Mastercard and Ecobank Group, which will see Farm Pass rolled out to 33 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, growing the award-winning digital solution’s footprint beyond Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania where it is currently live. And as more farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming, it will in turn stimulate agricultural growth, increase competitiveness, and improve food security in Africa – which has also experienced the knock-on effects of disrupted supply chains in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Farm Pass can also play a part in providing wider access to capital, given that only 3% of the agri-sector currently receives credit from banks. Access to working capital generally requires two things – proof of transactions and proof of ID. By integrating their operations with a payment system, Farm Pass enables smallholder farmers to build a digital transaction record that can facilitate the extension of formal credit or other financial services from banks and other institutions.

Lack of formal ID is a bigger problem, which affects access to services for many marginalized citizens. This is why Mastercard created Community Pass, a shared interoperable digital platform that connects people in the most remote and underserved communities to service providers including banks, governments and healthcare providers. Community Pass establishes a functional identity by creating a unique digital ID, allowing access to credit and services that would otherwise be unattainable. Farm Pass is the agricultural solution sitting on the Community Pass platform.

This is helpful not just for the farmers who use Farm Pass, but also for the medical professionals who are keeping communities safe in the wake of the biggest pandemic in a century. The potential of Wellness Pass, another component of Community Pass, is why Froman’s next stop was in Addis Ababa, formalizing a new partnership between Mastercard, Gavi, JSI and the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia.

Wellness Pass tackles the problems created by fragmented and manual healthcare systems, including lack of interoperability, a reliance on paper-based medical records, and limited ability to verify care plans, which impairs data access for clinics, governments and patients. The solution facilitates digitizing health and vaccination records and makes them portable and available offline. It also uses biometric verification to preserve patient privacy and enable individuals to participate equitably in society – in this case, to receive much-needed healthcare services and accurate record-keeping of their medical history. For Ethiopia, it will strengthen the country’s public health response through secure Covid-19 vaccination tracking and offline portability of health records.

“In the wake of the pandemic, we quickly reconfigured the Wellness Pass tool from focusing on childhood vaccinations to tracking Covid-19 vaccinations so that societies could more easily cope with managing the virus,” says Froman. “Our hope is that Wellness Pass will reach one million Ethiopians in the next 15 months, improving the accessibility, affordability and quality of primary healthcare for residents. This is consistent with the 2025 Digital Ethiopia Strategy.”

Wider adoption of technology is driving innovation. But you can’t just pull a product off the shelf at headquarters and assume it’s going to work anywhere. It’s the way in which global expertise and know-how blend with a deep understanding of local communities and needs which has the potential to produce innovations with the greatest impact. It’s how Mastercard can deliver on its commitment to connect one billion people, 50 million small and micro businesses and 25 million women-run businesses to the digital economy by 2025. 

“By connecting people and businesses to the digital economy with the help of our partners, Mastercard is working to enhance the financial security and wellbeing of communities. Driving sustainable, inclusive growth is central to who we are as a company and our commitment to “doing well by doing good.”

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