New technologies in Africa – disruptive challenges or opportunities for a sustainable food system transformation?

Over the course of this week, experts gathered in Washington D.C. for the 22nd International Consortium on Applied Bioeconomy Research (ICABR) Forum to discuss “Disruptive innovations, value chains, and rural development”. Since 1998, ICABR has convened annual meetings to debate around emerging and innovative knowledge on highly relevant issues regarding agriculture and the bio economy. These meetings bring together different stakeholders, including the scientific community, policymakers, international organizations, NGOs, agricultural producers and consumer groups. This year’s meeting focused on the impact of new value chain development and technologies on agribusiness and farmers, as well as their capacity to harness innovations. Discussions at the Forum also highlighted the policy and institutional implications of transforming value chains and the agri-food system.

 As we have witnessed over the past years, rapid changes in global food systems raise new opportunities, but also challenges, for the agriculture and food sector. Urbanization and an increased demand for food and fuel present new market opportunities and challenges for farmers, entrepreneurs, and agribusinesses in developing countries. At the same time, the growing concerns over climate change, pollution and food safety reflect an increasing need for environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions. This calls for agricultural innovations, renewable energy and the improved quality of foods and diets. As many African countries continue to struggle with rising food import bills, failure to adapt to these changes may cause the rural sector and smallholder farmers to fall further behind.

Although there is an awareness of these rapidly happening changes, the emerging possibilities and challenges for producers and consumers along the value chain are still hardly researched and addressed in policy formulation and implementation. Therefore, multidisciplinary forums like the ICABR are urgently needed to foster discussion between different stakeholders and develop policy innovations.

A forthcoming report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel of experts, analyzes the possibilities of mechanization along the food value chain in Africa. The report “Mechanized: Transforming Africa’s agriculture value chains,” summarizes findings from seven African countries that are at the forefront of harnessing the opportunities of mechanization and new technologies along the value chain. It also analyzes the policy decisions that were taken and which interventions have led to an uptake of mechanization.

Emerging and future technologies will play a critical role in the transformation of the agriculture sector as we know it today. Automated tractor steering or GPS-guided tractors are likely to reduce the costs of inputs through better control and management of farming practices. This, in return, leads to less soil compaction and erosion, and increased soil health. And there are many more examples of the potential of mechanization. Digital technologies such as drones, and autonomous agricultural and farming equipment could have considerable implications for the future competitiveness of African farmers. These emerging technologies will improve, simplify and accelerate performances along the entire value chain, ranging from production to processing and post-harvest handling. They will also gather complex data facilitating improvements in productivity, predictability and risk minimization in agriculture.

 While these technologies may still be out of reach for the large majority of African farmers, now is the time for governments to invest. Policies, regulations, service provision, powerful partnerships with the private sector, as well as cooperation arrangements with and for farmers will be necessary to enable and encourage the use of new technologies.

If effective policies and practices on mechanization can be brought to scale, the potential of the agriculture sector can be leveraged, important employment opportunities generated and food value chains transformed.


Read the report and follow up on the full set of recommendations (Available online on July 10th 2018).