The African Union Agenda 2063 reflects the commonly agreed discourse that the continent must harness science and technology to transform its agriculture into a more productive and competitive sector. In recent years, advanced technological innovations such as drones, artificial intelligence and blockchain have been integrated into agricultural solutions to maximize the efficiency and resilience of global food systems. The digital and data revolution offers many countries opportunities to leapfrog stages of technological development to rapidly scale up adoption of new innovations.
The ever-evolving nature of technology makes it easy to get caught up in the excitement of new innovations, but it is important that we do not overlook the value of simple ICTs in African agriculture. While only 12% of the population in Central Africa and 27% of the population in East Africa have access to the internet, 58% of Central Africa and 61% of East Africa have access to mobile phones. Given that mobile penetration in these regions is currently much higher than internet penetration, the development of agricultural services that can be used on basic feature phones is far more useful for most farmers than more advanced technology that is dependent on the internet.
Responding to farmers’ needs
To ensure widespread uptake of new technologies among farmers it is essential that agri-tech solutions are scalable, affordable and respond to gaps in agricultural services. One company that has successfully achieved this is Wefarm, the largest farmer-to-farmer digital network in the world. The network enables smallholder farmers to ask each other questions related to farming in any language, free-of-charge via SMS. Using machine learning algorithms, Wefarm matches each farmer’s question to the best suited response from farmers in the network. The maximum time it takes for farmers to receive a response to their question is less than 6 minutes, even without the internet. In September 2018, the start-up announced that it had reached over 1.1 million users across Kenya and Uganda, and planned to expand across the rest of Africa during 2019.
The usability of Wefarm’s service is the key to its success. Another company that has effectively adapted digital technology to respond to farmers’ needs is Hello Tractor. The agri-tech start-up helps smallholder farmers save on labor costs and improve their productivity by facilitating access to tractors. When farmers need a tractor they simply send Hello Tractor an SMS, who will then connect them to a tractor owner in the local vicinity. The company has developed a GPS monitoring device that can be fitted onto any tractor to allow owners to track the use of their equipment so that they are more inclined to lease their machines to smallholder farmers. If the monitoring device is tampered with or removed from the tractor, the owner is notified immediately. Hello Tractor really has developed a win-win technology solution for all stakeholders involved.
Facilitating uptake of emerging technologies
Improving farmers’ access to machinery is key to the transformation of agriculture envisioned by the African Union; hence the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s decision to publish the report, Mechanized: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture Value Chains. Artificial intelligence or robotics could further enhance the potential benefits of mechanization. Automated tractor steering, for example, reduces the need for experienced machine operators, mitigates the risk of equipment damage and minimizes the chance of errors in the application of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. The greater control offered by robotically operated farm machinery could not only save farmers’ money on inputs, but also allow them to reduce soil compaction, nutrient loss and soil erosion.
However, such GPS-guided tractors and planters – which can accurately position and operate farm machinery while the driver simply monitors the system – are still a long way from being deployed on African farms. Nevertheless, the technology will continue to advance, and it is essential that African countries invest in the infrastructure and policies necessary to assist adoption of these transformative digital technologies among farmers. They must also address the risk that automation could lead to a loss of jobs as workers are substituted with machines and come up with contingency plans to offer alternative employment.
As emerging technologies (robotic machinery, drones, soil sensors, satellite monitors, etc.) are rolled out, African countries need to ensure they have adequate human capacity to operate and maintain these technologies. This, undoubtedly, will require radical shifts in policy, mind-sets and awareness, as well as continuous investment to provide the appropriate learning infrastructure for smart-farming and agri-tech entrepreneurship. Here, there is an opportunity to attract young people to work in the agricultural sector and help to address the growing level of youth unemployment on the continent. The establishment of agri-tech learning and entrepreneurship hubs will help to reorient young Africans towards agriculture and build the requisite ‘smart agri-talent pool’ to drive smart agriculture in Africa.
By Professor Muhammadou M.O. Kah, American University of Nigeria, Adamawa State, Yola.
Malabo Montpellier Panel Member.