The seismic impact of technology in agriculture around the world is too obvious to miss. Indeed agriculture has metamorphosed from simplistic methodology to tech sophistication. Today technologies of all sorts have collectively made a transformative contribution to a sector that has consistently proven to be more than meets the eye.
Despite the mammoth improvements made possible by technology, Africa is sadly lagging behind.
Of late, agricultural productivity in Africa has been seen to decrease considerably. This is evident from the low farm productivity, shorter fallow periods and farm communities losing young people to rural-urban migration. Furthermore, inasmuch as the African governments use many policy instruments, farm yields have only improved marginally.
Furthermore, a considerable proportion of farmers still use traditional processes that depend heavily on historical norms. For instance in Nigeria, farming communities like the Igbos continue to plant in accordance with the moon’s appearance. They also attribute their yields and harvests to ‘Chineke’ (God) as opposed to their own methods. Moreover, a few bold farmers who do try to use new technologies run the risk of running into losses due to high cost and inadequate expertise.
This bittersweet storyline was recently brought to the fore when The President of the African Development Bank Group, Akinwumi Adesina, made an urgent call to give farmers across the continent new technologies with the potential to transform agricultural production. Adesina said the technology transfer was needed immediately and that evidence from countries like Nigeria demonstrated that technology plus strong government backing was already yielding positive results.
”Technologies to achieve Africa’s green revolution exist but are mostly just sitting on the shelves. The challenge is a lack of supportive policies to ensure that they are scaled up to reach millions of farmers,” Adesina said during a keynote speech delivered at the 2018 Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) Annual Meeting held in Washington, D.C August 5, 2018.
Adesina cited the case of Nigeria, where policy during his tenure as the country’s Minister of Agriculture, resulted in a rice production revolution in three years.
“All it took was sheer political will, supported by science, technology and pragmatic policies…Just like in the case of rice, the same can be said of a myriad of technologies, including high-yielding water efficient maize, high-yielding cassava varieties, animal, and fisheries technologies,” Adesina said.
The African Development Bank is pointing the way to how this can be done, and is currently working with the World Bank, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to mobilize US$ 1 billion to scale up agricultural technologies across Africa under a new initiative called Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT).
TAAT is taking bold steps to bring down some of the barriers preventing farmers from accessing the latest seed varieties and technologies to improve their productivity. “With the rapid pace of growth of the use of drones, automated tractors, artificial intelligence, robotics and block chains, agriculture as we know it today will change,” the President said. “It is more likely that the future farmers will be sitting in their homes with computer applications using drones to determine the size of their farms, monitor and guide the applications of farm inputs, and with driverless combine harvesters bringing in the harvest.”
Adesina used the opportunity to advocate for African universities to adapt their curriculum to enable technology-driven farmers and to focus on agribusiness entrepreneurship for young people, emphasizing the need to rise beyond theories to application.
Through its innovative Enable Youth initiative, the African Development Bank has in the past two years committed close to US$ 300 million to develop the next generation of agribusiness and commercial farmers for Africa.
Adesina stressed the Bank’s resolve to change the face of agriculture in Africa to unleash new sources of wealth. AAEA President Scott Swinton said Adesina and the African Development Bank exemplify the use of economics that makes a difference in people’s lives.
“If applied economics is economics that make a difference, I think that there is no better example of someone who has used that than Akinwumi Adesina,” Swindon said.
Adesina told delegates at the 2018 conference attended by over 1,600 agricultural and applied economists from around the world: “There is no reason why Africa should be spending US$ 35 billion a year importing food. All it needs to do is to harness the available technologies with the right policies and rapidly raise agricultural productivity and incomes for farmers, and assure lower food prices for consumers.”
Adesina, who was the 2017 World Food Prize winner, is advocating for the creation of staple crops processing zones across Africa (SCPZs): vast areas within rural areas set aside and managed for agribusiness and food manufacturing industries and other agro-allied industries, enabled with right policies and infrastructure.
“I am convinced that just like industrial parks helped China, so will the SCPZs help to create new economic zones in rural areas that will help lift hundreds of millions out of poverty through the transformation of agriculture- the main source of their livelihoods- from a way of life into a viable profitable business that will unleash new sources of wealth,” he said.
The African Development Bank has already begun investing in the development of processing zones in a number of African countries, including Ethiopia, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mozambique, with a plan to reach 15 countries in a few years.
To help Africa transform its agriculture, the Bank is investing US$ 24 billion over the next ten years to implement its Feed Africa Strategy.
The onset of techpreneurs in agriculture is thankfully altering the narrative. These players offer digital services that aid agriculture. There are start-up entrepreneurs and also local enterprises across Africa who are able to deliver solutions to small farmers at an affordable cost. Further accelerating the momentum to this trend is the fact that the barrier of entry into farming technology has dropped, since digital tools are now affordable.
Other slightly more complex technologies like aerial images from satellites or drones, weather forecasts, and soil sensors are making it possible to manage crop growth in real time. Automated systems are available to provide early warnings in case of deviations from normal growth. There is also available technology that deals with precision farming. Such outfits have the facility to measure and analyze soil data like temperature, nutrients and vegetative health. This helps farmers apply the right fertilizer and irrigate their farms optimally.
The process not only reduces input waste but also serves to improve farm productivity. Generally, the accessibility of technology has made farming a more exciting option for young people, who are increasingly viewing it as a business.
On the other hand, when it comes to large farms, success in derived from growing as much per acre of land as possible, reducing the risk of failure, minimizing operational costs and selling the crops at the best price. This demands effective management of input resources like fertilizer, water and seed quality, and minimizing the impact of the weather and pests.
Ultimately, digital agriculture should encompass ICT and data ecosystems that support the development and delivery of timely, targeted information and services. These would then serve to make farming profitable and sustainable while delivering safe, nutritious and affordable food of all.
With Africa currently on the precipice of certain population explosion, that could be compounded by climate change, a lack of technical expertise and the migration of young people away from rural areas into cities, the use of technology in agriculture has become even more imperative.
Africa is currently experiencing a rapid growth in population, with estimates suggesting by 2050 the population for Africa will reach 2.2 billion. The ability of African farmers to increase productivity is critical in order to provide food and economic growth to support its growing population.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that the agricultural market in Sub-Saharan Africa alone will grow from $200 billion in 2015 to $1 trillion by 2030.
Lessons for Ghana
In Ghana, the agritech bandwagon has many aboard. The local industry has gradually but steadily embraced technology.
Through the foresight of many industry firms, all manner of technologies are available to farmers across the country. One would hope that the ambitious leap into reliance on agritech will be sustained and will consequently become the catalyst that spurs Ghana to attain the heights predicted by many agric-industry enthusiasts’ advocates.
The shift from simplistic agriculture has brought about easy-to-use, affordable information and communication technology (ICT) tools have helped agribusinesses address a range of challenges; gaining better access to customer and market price information; maximizing efficiencies along the value-chain; and promoting products cheaply and widely. Ultimately, these technologies help to bridge knowledge gaps across the agriculture sector. To be able to use these tools to maximise efficiency in the agricultural value chain government and relevant stakeholders must work collaboratively to ensure that more farmers are brought aboard the agritech bandwagon.