There are a growing number of examples across Africa where innovative technologies and successful mechanization practices are improving the capacity of farmers and other operators to grow, store, process, transform and transport their crops and other agricultural products. However, despite such progress, concern about the environmental and the social impacts persists.
The improper use of agricultural machinery and equipment can increase pressure on already fragile natural resources and negatively impact employment, which is critical for the future of agriculture and rural areas in Africa. As policymakers promote mechanization to improve efficiency and reduce the drudgery of farming, it is necessary to ensure sustainability is addressed when implementing conservation agriculture and mechanization strategies.
Transformation of agriculture and food systems towards sustainable development
Finding the right balance between adopting appropriate technologies and inputs to increase farm yields and avoiding damage to the natural environment is key to the sustainable transformation of agriculture. Mechanization and conservation agriculture have an integral role to play in this process. The Malabo Montpellier Panel’s report, Mechanized: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture Value Chains, summarizes the findings of a systemic analysis into how seven countries (Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia) have increased agricultural mechanization along the entire value chain.
The report’s analysis from one country to another demonstrates how different the agro-ecosystem is from one place to another. There is not one single Africa when it comes to local solutions. The needs, the expectations, the successes and failures very much depend on local and national characteristics, including the nature of ecosystems resources and farming structures, and the institutional setting. There is no magic bullet and no one size fits all solution.
However, when locally adapted, agricultural mechanization can offer a multitude of benefits, from reducing the drudgery of farming activities, to improving the efficiency of production and processing, and enhancing the quality of produce. In the case of conservation agriculture, as shared during the Second Africa Congress on Conservation Agriculture during October 2018, the use of appropriate seeding and fertiliser technologies (or planters) in no-till or minimum tillage farming, with crop residue left standing, may lead to increased yields, reduced fertilizer and pesticide application, and less labour and time intensive work
Creating pathways for adoption of new technologies
As we all know, the success of mechanization is not just about designing adapted technology and making those technologies available. Rather, increasing the uptake of agricultural mechanization along the entire value chain requires investment in research and development, technical capacity to build and operate machines, and adaptability to local needs and different environmental and social conditions, among other factors. A comprehensive, systematic approach is therefore required to achieve effective and sustainable agricultural mechanization and to promote the principles of conservation agriculture, in Africa.
Governments must develop creative interventions and foster an enabling environment to promote adapted mechanization pathways. Incentives targeted at increased collaboration with the private sector, skill development and training of youth, and support for the creation of employment in the mechanization sector are just some examples of how countries can make considerable progress. The transformation of agriculture in Africa is not only possible, it is already taking place. But, while taking on board the diversity of contexts, Africa has to invent unique and original pathways to integrate conservation agriculture and mechanization strategies to prevent potentially catastrophic consequences.