The stakes are high. Africa currently holds the highest prevalence of the world’s undernourished people and has among the lowest agricultural yields in the world. The continent will double in population to hold an estimated 2.5 billion of the world’s nearly 10 billion people by 2050.
Yet there is enormous potential for innovation to transform African agriculture, bringing jobs and strengthening food security. One leader driving this agenda is Debisi Araba, the dynamic regional director for Africa at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). In the interview below he explores technologies influencing agriculture on the continent, emphasizes disruption opportunities, and highlights that platforms can release the best of human ingenuity.
Lorin Fries: Where do you wish we could be making progress faster in African agriculture?
Debisi Araba: The biggest question is why we haven’t yet had a green revolution in Africa. Part of the explanation is inadequate funding, but it’s also about adopting an “agriculture as a business” approach. Agriculture is not about sustaining people just above the poverty line; it’s about turning them into entrepreneurs who can thrive, recognizing the potential for this sector to lift millions out of poverty. Agriculture is poised for a mushrooming of investment across the continent.
Fries: How do you see technology as relevant to your work?
Araba: Let’s start with production. We need to shift the focus away from calories and toward improved nutrition and health. That means introducing the right practices and varieties, using conventional breeding as well as breeding for micronutrients. It’s also critical to understand soil health. We look for technologies that improve on-farm decision-making, interfacing with databases like the African Soil Information Service.
On the consumption side, Africa is facing the triple burden of malnutrition – chronic hunger, malnutrition and obesity. Many talk about biofortification as a solution; that is just one of the pathways. We should be focused on technologies that can make the entire value chain nutrition sensitive, from smallholder farmers to big retailers.
One technology that lies beneath the food system is electrical power. Kofi Annan talked a lot about this. Just as with telephony, we’ll see a similar leapfrog effect over the next decade in the supply of off-grid power, including through solar, wind and geothermal systems. These will have significant impact on agriculture, such as for supporting irrigation and powering cooling systems for fresh produce.
We’re seeing a transformation in mechanization as the gig economy comes into its own. Platforms like Hello Tractor, which operates a time leasing model for mechanization services, are creating a whole cadre of new entrepreneurs and sending signals to the manufacturing industry to design equipment for these types of clients.
So we’re in exciting times. If you zoom out from these innovations to see the size of demand, you can see the potential for growth. Once these shoots mature and they can connect to funding, we’re going to have a complete transformation. I see this happening over the next 5-10 years.
Fries: Where has the use of technologies worked well toward your goals?
Araba: One example is breeding. CIAT supports a native variety of brachiaria, a type of animal forage with deep roots that helps reduce erosion and increase carbon sequestration in soil. It is easily digestible, so can increase milk production by 40% while reducing methane emissions among livestock. It simultaneously helps to improve health and nutrition, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthen livelihoods among dairy farmers.
We’re excited about the future of breeding and the prospects of new techniques like gene editing. This is completely different than genetic modification organisms (GMOs). As long as communication of the science behind gene editing is done well, and the public accepts it, then we will be fine. If we don’t communicate well, and people perceive a nightmare “Frankenfoods” scenario as they did with GMOs, we might lose the opportunity. We have about 9.7 billion people to feed, globally, by 2050. That means we need to radically change our farming systems and the technologies and tools that we adapt.
Fries: Where could technology accelerate your work? What would this take?
Araba: I don’t want to be too prescriptive about which technologies will become the leading ones tomorrow. We should focus on base technologies, like power. Consider that radio waves led to mobile phones, which led in Kenya to mobile money. WhatsApp started as a secure means of communication, and now we have WhatsApp groups trading commodity price information across countries. It’s amazing what people will do with base technology. Let’s focus on platforms. People will build lovely innovations on top of them.
Fries: Do you perceive a gap between the availability and the adoption of appropriate technology?
Araba: People will always surprise you with the way they use technology. It’s less about what the inventor thinks it will solve, and more about how it gets used. We make assumptions about the limits of humans’ capacity to adopt and adapt technology for their own purposes.
One point to emphasize is that “low tech” is not “no tech”. Don’t look down on the technology with fewer bells and whistles. Everyone wants to use blockchain, drones and infrared, but these don’t necessarily need to be the game changers. Solar-powered irrigation can change equally as much. Technology is about giving people more options.
Fries: Do you have additional reflections about using technology to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals?
Araba: The future is for those who open their minds to embrace new ways of thinking and solving problems. It will surprise us. We’ll find unconventional solutions. I don’t know what the future will bring, what people will use and how. But I’m certain that agriculture in Africa is ripe for disruption – and that Africa won’t just feed itself; it will feed the world.
This interview is part of a series on how technology and innovation are transforming food and ecological systems – and how to get it right for people and planet. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. The views expressed are Debisi’s own.