Seeds of progress

Agritech is pivotal to growing and supporting Africa’s farmers, ensuring food security for all

Home to 60% of the globe’s unused arable land, it is absurd and unconscionable that Africa should also be the most food-insecure region in the world, with more than 232 million under-nourished people (about one in four). Of course, this isn’t for want of great minds and organisations both within Africa and abroad making solid, sustained efforts to strengthen food security on the continent – yet formidable, seemingly intractable challenges persist.

It is for this reason that many are looking to advances in technology as a potential catalyst for transformation. This may be putting the cart before the horse, however.

‘While the wealth of agricultural potential in Africa will only be unlocked by competitive farming techniques such as precision agriculture, data-driven agriculture, digitalisation and AI-assisted production practices, the continent’s farmers will not leapfrog there,’ says Theo de Jager, chairperson of the Southern African Agri Initiative, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, as well as agri-agency Agri All Africa. ‘The challenge is to first get rid of the hand hoe. The most important technologies for farmers to adapt to climate change are those which enable us to produce more on less, with less.

‘Poverty and hunger are the biggest challenges of our time in Africa. There is only one way to combat poverty – by creating wealth. No sector of the economy of Africa can create more wealth in a shorter time, on a broader basis than agriculture. But not with hand hoes.

‘The paradigm shift is in the commercialisation, the modernisation and, specifically, the mechanisation of farming in Africa. Africa has everything money can’t buy – under-utilised land, groundwater sources, climate and people living in rural areas. It needs investment though, in infrastructure, technology, expertise, linkages to markets and competitive producers.’

There are signs that this call for capital is being answered. This year the AfDB approved just under US$20 million for Mozambique’s Economic Acceleration and Governance Support programme, which is expected, among other outcomes, to attract investment in climate-smart agriculture.

In February, three agritech start-ups – ThriveAgric of Nigeria, Kenya’s DigiCow and Botswana-based Brastorne Enterprises – secured shares of US$1.5 million in grant funding. In September, USAID and the Norwegian Minister of International Development launched a multi-donor fund designed to unlock hundreds of millions in financing for small- and medium-sized agricultural businesses in Africa. And in October, the DRC announced its plan to invest US$6.6 billion over 10 years in its Agriculture Transformation Programme.

While some claim that the window for sustainable agricultural development in Africa is closing – due to the combined effects of climate change, low risk appetite and heightening conflict – others are more optimistic. Before the pandemic, the continent was experiencing unparalleled levels of economic growth. With funds being made available for agricultural development, the question becomes, which kinds of farming technologies will become most important for sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers to adapt to climate change?

‘Digital technology in farming equipment to capture and use data, together with precision farming to ensure the optimal management and use of all resources including soil, water as well as human capital,’ according to Hendrik van Staden, business head at Syngenta Seeds SA.

Syngenta has developed products such as CropWise SprayAssist, which helps growers choose the best time for chemical applications with relation to the weather. This allows the application to be more effective by spraying during the optimal environmental conditions as well as preventing drift, which can be bad for the environment.

‘Adopting hybrid seeds with the best genetic make-up will [also] give farmers a huge yield boost. Many of these hybrids also have the ability to better withstand drought conditions or show tolerance against certain diseases. Seeds are the starting point of our global food systems, and in the face of a global food crisis, they form the frontline of the food recovery system.’

Integrated pest management (IPM) is also becoming an important focus in the agricultural sector, he adds. IPM focuses on the long-term management of pests through a combination of techniques including chemical and biological control, as well as habitat manipulation such as increased plant diversity and the use of resistant varieties.

‘One often thinks of precision technology as pertaining only to planting, but it is much wider than that,’ says Van Staden. ‘It is an entire farming system. It is also often perceived that precision agriculture is only available to large, commercial farmers, but there are many applications that are also available to small-scale farmers. These include very basic but quite precise seed planters and fertiliser applicators, as wells as the more integrated approach to farming using gathered [data].’ He points out that cellphone apps will also play a contributing role among small-holder farmers across Africa, providing crop, new product, agronomic, weather and marketing information, while new irrigation equipment may also play a major role in more precise water applications and optimal use of water.

Another emerging benefit of many new technologies in the sector is a reduced impact on the environment. ‘Pressure to grow more from less will intensify, but it cannot be done at the expense of destroying soil health and environment,’ says Van Staden.

‘A holistic approach is fundamental to support growers in overcoming challenges to attend sustainability requirements and involve balancing complexity challenges – for example, soil health, biodiversity, climate change impact, and so on – with agricultural supply chain goals.’

It is nigh impossible to gauge African agriculture’s progress towards sustainable development, due to the diversity of countries that are very different from each other, and significant gaps in data.

More funds are being made available to grow the continent’s agricultural sector, allowing farmers to adopt digital technologies to ensure optimal resource management

‘Looking at Africa as a whole masks considerable heterogeneity,’ according to a report titled Agricultural Technology in Africa, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2022. ‘For example, cereal yields in the Southern Africa region have climbed substantially to US$900/ha in the last decade or so, while yields in countries of West Africa and North Africa rose more modestly to about US$500/ha, and yields in Central and East Africa have risen only slightly to about US$300/ha.’

Another example of this ‘heterogeneity’ is in how fertiliser use compares across African regions. Most other regions in the world have caught up to North American levels of fertilisation at least two decades ago, the report notes – and while there have been substantial increases in fertiliser use in Southern and North Africa, gains in other areas of Africa appear quite modest.

In terms of irrigation, too, Africa lags quite far behind, with little sign of catching up. The share of agricultural land area equipped for irrigation remains at approximately 0.005 for the continent, compared to more than 0.025 for the world.

All of this is to say that this pervasive diversity presents challenges both for African farmers attempting to make optimal technology decisions and researchers seeking to understand farmer technology choices. ‘A technology that is profitable on one set of farms in a particular year may fail on other nearby farms or in other seasons,’ the report states.

Despite cynicism, it is rational to believe that new technology holds the key to solving this very problem of heterogeneity, as it has in so many other aspects of human life. Solutions to sustainable agricultural development in parts of Africa are yet to been found – but that is no reason to assume they won’t be, as the technological advances of our time leap ahead exponentially. Humanity’s pursuit of innovation has powered progress throughout history. Why would we stop now?

By Robyn Maclarty
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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