Agritech forces gain ground across Africa
“Land never deceives” is a common slogan of farmers around Africa. Many people go into farming entirely, or as a side endeavor, with a high certainty they’ll make money and produce more good for all. And when technology is added to the mix, opportunities multiply.
Having the largest area of uncultivated arable land in the world, sub-Saharan Africa, with a young population—nearly 60% is under 25—and a wealth of natural resources, has unparalleled advantages that could double or even triple its current agricultural productivity, according to the Status of Agriculture in 47 Sub-Saharan African Countries, a report the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly published with the International Technology Union (ITU) in March 2022.
Some African countries depend almost entirely on agriculture, like Ethiopia, for example, with 80% of its economy based on it. Jermia Bayisa Lulu, CEO and co-founder of start-up Debo Engineering Agritech, has consolidated his knowledge and experience in computer networking, engineering, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) research to go all in on agritech to solve the problems that affect 85% of community life in his native Ethiopia.
“Our economy is based on agriculture and I believe it should be further supported by technology to increase agricultural productivity,” he says. “Plus, about 20.4 million people in Ethiopia are in need of food aid, which motivates us to solve the problem of agriculture to ensure the lives of millions of people. The same is true for most African countries that need to be supported by technological solutions.”
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Like Bayisa Lulu, many believe that technology mixed with agriculture is essential to develop the agricultural sector and improve people’s lives, including Michael Hailu. He is the director of the ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, which brings together 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and European Union member states.
“In agriculture, digitization could be a game changer by boosting productivity, profitability and resilience to climate change,” says Hailu.
In last year’s Digitization of African Agriculture report, which the ACP compiles, it details how 33 million small-scale farmers and pastoralists registered with Digital for Agriculture (D4Ag) solutions across the continent in 2019, adding that it’s expected to rise to 200 million by 2030.
“The stakes are so high it’s not surprising most African countries have made agricultural transformation a major focus of their national strategies,” he adds.
Diverse problems as solutions
On the ground, things are already changing with a multitude of start-ups solving a variety of agricultural problems with drone technology, precision agriculture and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. The scope of technology in this sphere is vast and is an important driver of change.
Youth innovation in Ghana, for instance, continues to exceed expectations according to Kenneth Abdulai Nelson, co-founder and MD of Farm360 Global, a crowdfunding and consulting company dedicated to smart farming projects. He believes that the days when agriculture was not “sexy” to most young people are over, thanks to the technology revolution.
“With the keen interest in developing agriculture through technology, leading centers have initiated and supported training young entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo and develop innovative technological solutions to solve key problems in the agricultural sector,” he says.
He listed AI solutions that today improve the quality of crops or precision agriculture found in the use of drones, robotics, hydroponics, and more.
“AI technology can detect plant diseases, pests and nutritional deficiencies on farms,” he says. “AI sensors can detect and target weeds and areas of poor nutrition and then decide which herbicide or fertilizer to apply in the area.”
Abdulai Nelson also has a personal interest in drones as a proven and effective way to improve agriculture. Indeed, in Ghana and others across the continent, drones are used for mapping, pesticide spraying, soil and data analysis, and farm monitoring to improve productivity while maximizing the use of labor.
He also appreciates the expensive but valuable irrigation technologies being used by some businesses on the continent.
“Anticipating the impacts of climate change emphasizes the need for irrigation technologies to ensure year-round production,” he says. “More than 50% of farmers rely heavily on seasonal rainfall, which continues to change dramatically.”
He also finds that IoT solutions stimulate productivity in the agrarian sector by effectively analyzing data, both historical and current, to inform well thought out activities. Applications are wide-ranging and include deep sensors to help predict rainfall and drought; soil sensors to determine fertilizer application areas; storage sensors to make sure products are stored at favorable temperatures; and input tracking and logistics to reduce post-harvest losses.
Walid Gaddas is a Tunisian consultant in strategy and international development in the agritech sector. He manages STECIA International, a consulting firm in strategy and international development in agriculture that works with global partners around the world, and working with several agritech projects in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, he has observed great potential.
“More countries are aware that agritech is not the agriculture of tomorrow but of today,” he says. “In countries such as Ivory Coast in West Africa, the government has already put in place all the strategies to digitize agriculture. Many activities are being carried out to digitalize the cocoa and rubber sectors.”
Strength of creativity
One of the crucial issues that agriculture in Africa is currently solving, according to Gaddas, is a lack of water. He says that in Senegal, Tunisia and many other countries, companies are working hard on intelligent irrigation, and on how to optimize water resources that are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in the context of climate change and unpredictable rainfall.
“Managing water is becoming crucial,” he says. “We’ve met start-ups that use drones, which, through their precision devices, help to collect data that can be used by farmers, such as the levels of nitrogen from the fields, precise mapping of areas with fertiliser deficits,and others that solve plant disease problems by making diagnoses. There are also ERP systems for farm management and to know what is happening in real time—the management of inputs, fertilizers and more.”
He also appreciated the digital aquaculture companies that allow for very rational management of aquaculture farms, while praising the impressive diversity of solutions.
“The diversity of problems that farmers face in Africa is very wide but creativity is not the weak point of Africans,” he says. “Farmers also generally have issues with small plots, low yields and low productivity, so they often lack the know-how to optimize what little they have.”
So these digital solutions are aimed more at small-scale farmers who are used to working like their parents or grandparents and don’t necessarily have all the knowledge, so technologies can provide them with research results and tell them what they need for their crops, Gaddas says.
Coupled with these data analytics solutions and other related technologies, the most complex problems in agriculture are being solved according to computer scientist Bayisa Lulu.
“Emerging technologies are solving complex problems that seemed to go unsolved in the past decades and without much user involvement, which is a very important, especially for the disadvantaged.”
Success relies on tech
IT leaders are now making their mark in this transformation by helping to identify and develop solutions through implementing agritech accelerator and incubator programs to reduce pressure, risk, food safety and waste.
By doing so, they take a broad and long-term view of key issues in the agricultural space, and serve as the engine behind effecting solutions.
“An operations manager can identify the problem,” says Abdulai Nelson, “but it’s up to the CIO to listen, design and develop the most appropriate technology solution.”
Others agree that the development of agriculture and technology has unlimited possibilities, and it’s the right time to build better bridges between them so agriculture can further benefit from cutting-edge technologies quicker and on a larger scale, according to Gaddas. Education, of course, is key.
“The fact that agronomists are associated with computer scientists makes all the difference because the contribution of technology to agriculture is enormous, and also the agricultural logic integrated by computer scientists transforms things,” he says. “They must be able to enrich each other’s capacities. It’s great to see them working hand in hand changing things in Africa.”
Also, in Tunisia where Gaddas is based, there are many schools for computer engineers geared toward agritech because it’s a booming sector.
“In addition, it’s thanks to the legal framework created in Tunisia four years ago with the Startup act, a law created to encourage the development of Tunisian start-ups with several financial and fiscal support measures,” he says. “So there’s a favorable ecosystem, evidenced by the dozens of agritech companies launched since the creation of this law.”
While most experts like him believe that agriculture is capable of radical and rapid change due to technology, they also believe it transcends the difficulties that slow down the process.
But in Central Africa, for instance, things are a bit different than in other sub-regions. The transformation potential of digital innovations for agri-food systems is poorly initiated there, with less than 5% of the digital agricultural services identified in Africa coming from this region, according to the FAO. “Existing barriers still need to be addressed, including the lack of rural infrastructure, funding for agriculture and investment in research and development, agri-innovation, and agricultural entrepreneurship,”the specialized UN agency says.
Other observers lament digital illiteracy, limited internet access in some rural areas, and electricity difficulties.
But all these problems have solutions, according to Gaddas. Today, farmers who can’t read or write receive audio messages in local languages, and messages in image form via mobile phones in order to overcome the problem of educating farmers.
“For the problems of electricity and internet access, there are also many solutions such as mini solar panels, or 4G and 3G, which cover internet issues in some remote areas,” he says. He’s convinced that technology is now overcoming all these difficulties. “To receive market prices, for example, you just have to open your phone,” he says. “Even the most basic one can receive the technology and it doesn’t require a PhD in computer science.”