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Debisi Araba: “Agriculture is a business; we can’t have unsustainable mechanisation”

Africa Director of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and member of the Malabo Montpellier (MaMo) Panel, Debisi Araba, explains how mechanisation can open up opportunities across Africa’s agricultural value chains.

MaMo has recently launched its latest report, Mechanized: Transforming Africa’s Agriculture Value Chains. Why did the panel decide to focus on mechanisation?

The MaMo Panel is focused on getting precise evidence to key stakeholders to inform decision-making across Africa and ensure that the continent’s agriculture is sustainable, competitive, productive and transformative. Currently, Africa’s agricultural sector has very low levels of mechanisation, making it globally uncompetitive, with poor productivity levels. You will find that a lot of African economies, especially those that are focused heavily around agriculture, export largely unprocessed or semi-processed commodities, whilst importing highly-processed, higher value goods. In a global economy, African countries need to be doing much more to produce and trade in processed and higher value agricultural goods to increase productivity, create jobs and improve food security; this is where mechanisation comes in.

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Looking across different agricultural value chains in Africa, the report finds that mechanisation offers opportunities to significantly increase productivity, competitiveness, sustainability and even create jobs. The low level of mechanisation not only limits processing of value added agriculture products, but also contributes to a lot of food waste throughout the value chain. Africa’s contribution to global food waste is around 36%, and about 30% of that is due to poor post-harvest handling of food products. Implementing technologies to improve post-harvest handling and reduce post-harvest losses, will ensure that we have improved food production in Africa.

The report examines a number of case studies from across Africa. Which countries particularly stand out in terms of progress towards scaling out mechanisation services in agriculture?

I would like to really emphasise the important progress that Ethiopia, Morocco and Nigeria have made to foster an ecosystem that supports agricultural mechanisation by providing access to finance and training, and developing a pool of service providers which can produce and maintain equipment. Beginning with Morocco, the Department of Agronomy set up an agricultural mechanisation training centre, which acts as a meeting space for researchers and the private sector to develop new technologies. Through this centre dairy farmers have been connected with large processors like Nestlé and milk production has increased significantly due to the introduction and adoption of mechanisation tools.

Ethiopia has done something similar, whereby they have trained farmers how to use and maintain different mechanisation tools and equipment. They launched an academy to train around 30 young people each year, which is helping to create an ecosystem to support mechanisation. This is important because across Africa you will often see tractors that have been abandoned due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to maintain or fix them. Agriculture is a business; we can’t have unsustainable mechanisation.

Finally, in Nigeria there has been promising progress to address post-harvest losses. A start-up called Cold Hubs has focused on improving efficiency in the cold supply chain through off-grid refrigeration systems (see Spore article, Cold Chains: Strengthening the Weak Link). The company has set up solar powered refrigeration units in markets and on farms, which allow farmers, wholesalers and retailers to preserve, store and transport their products more easily.

The focus of this year’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) is on enabling new pathways to turn smallholders into sustainable agribusinesses. What topics do you hope the event will pick up on?

The sub-theme for this year’s AGRF is focused on showcasing how to ‘Lead, Measure and Grow’ agricultural transformation. What does a transformed agricultural sector look like? It will be highly competitive, highly productive sustainable, and able to create high-income opportunities, as well as deliver healthy and nutritious food. Getting people to identify the opportunities in agriculture that exist beyond the farm is important. We need to create more opportunities and pathways for people to move higher up the value chain. This will come with increased mechanisation. But beyond mechanisation, I would like to hear updates and ideas about access to innovative finance mechanisms at all scales, for example blended finance; as well as conversations about data governance and implementing artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technologies, to improve productivity.

Women and young people have a central role to play in the transformation of Africa’s agriculture. What more needs to be done to support them to participate and thrive in the sector?

The question of youth cuts across all economic sectors in Africa because we have a very young population on the continent. All African governments, and the private sector, need to look at incentives to attract young people to agriculture and invest in creating or widening entry points for them to join the sector. We need to move people up the value chain. One way to do this is through mechanisation – introducing on and off-field processing technologies, irrigation, off-grid power technologies and a sustainable and affordable service sector around these technologies, will create job opportunities for young people.

Not enough has been done for women in agriculture and we need to be particular about how we target interventions to support women into agriculture. Access to affordable finance, land and property rights and the ability to transfer assets in their own names, are some of the most important battles that we need to fight. Women are currently disenfranchised across the entire economy, but they are particularly marginalised in agriculture because they have few land rights. Tying finance to assets other than the land would help more women to develop agribusinesses and giving women access to mechanisation tools, specific to their needs, would reduce the daily drudgery that they face in agriculture.

CIAT has been at the forefront of developing climate-smart agriculture solutions. How can public-private partnerships support such innovations?

Over the last 51 years, CIAT has been at the forefront of deploying cutting-edge agricultural innovations around the world. In climate-smart agriculture, we collaborate with a wide array of partners across multiple sectors on research for development and continue to explore new partnerships to ensure that we have a steady and growing conduit to disseminate innovations to those who need them. For example, in Nigeria we have a partnership with the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending, which we are helping to design and develop climate risk profiles. These profiles will inform the financial sector’s decision making and investment planning for agriculture. The credit industry and the insurance sector will also use the profiles to design tools for their clients – small, medium and large-scale agribusinesses alike – with a clearer understanding of where the climate risks are. It is really exciting to see these technologies move agribusiness to more productive, sustainable and profitable levels and we are proud to be partners on this journey of agriculture transformation in Africa.

Stephanie Lynch

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