0722 GMT March 24, 2019
The continent has more than a quarter of the world’s arable land, and farming contributes 15 percent of the continent’s total gross domestic product, equivalent to $100 billion a year, according to consultancy McKinsey, ft.com reported.
But a traditional, manual approach among smallholder farmers has kept yields below full capacity.
Now technological innovation is starting to help lift production. Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), a Boston-based nonprofit organization, for example, is using text messaging to teach farmers in western Kenya how to use agricultural lime, which helps combat soil acidity, and how to fight the fall armyworm pest, which tears through crops and destroys livelihoods.
PAD, which works in several countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda, is one of a growing number of nonprofit organizations and companies scaling down technology tools for smallholder farmers — those with small plots of land relying almost exclusively on family labor — to transform growing practices across the continent.
The dual effects of climate change and population growth have thrust smart agriculture on to the agenda, as farmers and governments scramble to prepare for rising food demand.
“Providing farmers with information and recommendations tailored to their local soil, weather and market conditions could dramatically improve yields and net incomes for farmers,” said Megan Sheahan, the PAD’s director of operations.
According to the company, information sent via text message — including reminders about planting and weeding schedules — increased sugar cane yields in Kenya by 11.5 percent. Meanwhile, creating a hotline service for farmers to report delays in fertilizer delivery reduced their frequency by 21.6 percent.
Agricultural technology has already seen impressive uptake in the US, the UK and Australia, where many growers now deploy a sophisticated range of drones, satellite data, soil sensors and internet-of-things-enabled devices.
In the developing world, where four-fifths of food is produced by smallholders, according to the UN, uptake has been slower because of lower literacy rates, capital and telephony penetration.
A cohort of indigenous African companies, as well as multinationals such as Climate Corporation and institutions such as the World Bank are, however, exploring ways to adapt and broaden smart farming technologies to bring the precision agriculture revolution to the continent. Most work with cooperatives and governments.
Zenvus, an Owerri-based startup, collects and analyzes vast amounts of soil data across Nigeria, offering detailed, tailored advice to farmers on what, when and how to plant.
Its digital services allow smallholders to view real-time crop prices, raise capital and crowdfund on their computers and smart devices.
“This will have a tangible effect on poverty in Africa because most households and families are going to see higher incomes,” said Ndubuisi Ekekwe, the company’s founder.
AgroCenta, another platform, brings advice and weather forecasts to Ghanaian farmers and, most importantly, allows them to sell their crops digitally to large companies such as Nestlé and Diageo.
“Smallholder farmers who trade on AgroCenta enjoy access to a structured market to trade, bypassing exploitative middlemen,” said Francis Obirikorang, the chief executive.
Meanwhile, in emerging agritech hub Kenya, SunCulture sells solar-powered pumps for affordable irrigation and Nairobi-based SolarFreeze has designed solar-powered cold storage units for farmers and traders.
In Cameroon, AgroSpaces provides growers with live pricing data, giving them an advantage when they take their crops to market.
There are obstacles on the road to data-driven agriculture in Africa, even if tools can be scaled down to within the financial reach of small-scale growers.
Lower literacy rates in rural areas mean the delivery of apps and services must be accompanied by time-consuming training.
In addition, telephony penetration rates vary wildly across sub-Saharan Africa, where overall penetration reached 44 percent in 2017, below the global average rate of 66 percent. With large swaths of arable land still lacking connectivity, it is difficult to deploy new technologies.
“Internet penetration rates present the biggest obstacle to tech-based farming in Africa,” said Obirikorang.
There are also concerns that new technologies might push smallholders towards harmful chemical-based farming methods, which boost yields in the short term but can deplete soils over time.
“Farming provides an extremely important livelihood so ensuring new technologies do not destroy jobs and incomes is vital,” said Vicki Hird, the campaign coordinator at Sustain, a food and environment consultancy.
Ultimately, the success of smart farming in sub-Saharan Africa will hinge on education, connectivity and financing, all of which depend on governments.
Agritech companies, however, are optimistic.
“There is so much appetite for investment,” said Zenvus’s Ekekwe.
“It is the one area where many people believe we will see exponential growth.”