A year after emergence of COVID-19, Africa’s agricultural sector has proved to be more resilient than people expected. Despite the widespread devastation experienced around the globe, food production in sub-Sahara Africa did not collapse and in fact, the South African citrus industry celebrated a record-setting season, with exports of 146 million cartons of fruit to the rest of the world.
Agricultural production in Africa is still characterized by significant exports of unprocessed products, and significant imports of processed foods. Nevertheless, across the continent, a young and dynamic population is embracing agritech (agriculture technology) based on AI, drones and mobile platforms to change that dynamic and create a more balanced and resilient agricultural sector.
During the time that the pandemic occupied everyone’s thoughts, the challenges posed by climate change took a back seat. But the prospect of rising temperatures, more droughts and floods and unpredictable weather patterns are a far greater long-term threat to food production than the pandemic.
Technology cannot solve all problems, but it has an important role to play in the agricultural sector.
In the major economies of the sub-Saharan region, farming accounts for approximately 15% of GDP. According to a Brookings research report, food production needs to grow by 60% over the next dozen years to feed the region’s expanding population. In these circumstances, the importance of successful agritech initiatives is vital.
Two-thirds of all Africans are involved in agricultural production, in some form or another, and the sector or is expected to grow in value. This will give impetus to the use of technology.
“Between 2010 and 2030, the total worth of its food industry is projected to hit the $1 trillion mark,” according to a report in the UN’s Africa Renewal programme. “While existing technologies like improved seeds and fertilizers will be critical to meeting this demand, Africa’s farmers will need additional new tools to improve yields and get their goods to market. Digitalisation can deliver these tools.”
Challenges vary from region to region and country to country but there are a few constants that are true everywhere. First, if you can’t get your product to market, you can’t sustain your livelihood. Secondly, the free flow of credible real-time information from weather to pricing is vital to growth of the industry. Finally, mobile devices have the penetration and the capability to be effective tools in the quest for a more resilient, productive agricultural sector.
Efforts to enhance agritech knowledge are key
Although the average age of a farm worker in Africa is about 60, the continent has the world’s youngest population — 60% of its 1.2 billion are under 25. The future of the industry lies with a growing number of young Africans who are developing technology to help modernise farming and hopefully encourage a new generation to take up an occupation in agriculture.
Meanwhile, poor digital literacy and a stubborn respect for traditional ways of working means that, although agritech solutions have started to make a difference amongst farming communities, progress is still slow and there’s a lot more work to be done.
Another big hurdle for adoption of agritech is that farmers in remote areas do not have access to information about emerging technology. They may not, for example, be associated with any of the more modern supply-chain systems being developed throughout the continent.
“Unfortunately, digitalisation only concerns farmers who are part of more integrated value chains,” said Mohamed Anouar Jamali, CEO of OCP Africa, a provider of farming products and services. “To achieve equitable growth, these digital technologies need to be more inclusive. In this context, digital literacy programmes, training in digital technologies applied to agriculture, among others, should be implemented,” said Jamali, who made the remarks in an online interview to promote a report on African agriculture OCP put together with consultancy Oxford Business Group.
While more training and knowledge-dissemination may be needed, there are currently a wide range of agritech initiatives currently under way. Through a distinctly low-tech approach, WeFarm has built an online community of farmers with expert local knowledge who are closely connected and able to ask questions and offer advice that is timely and relevant. The company is based in London but most of its users are in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Close to 2 million farmers across East Africa have joined the social network, and to date over 350 million messages have been shared among farmers.
The mechanism is simple. Once you join the network, you can pose a question via SMS. It gets distributed across the platform and answers are delivered back to the farmer via their mobile device. Farmers can pose questions for free, while WeFarm generates revenue on trade services including connecting retailers to producers. Announcing an investment of US$13 million into the company, Jon Callaghan of True Ventures said that “the company is not only impact-driven, but the impressive growth of the Wefarm Marketplace demonstrates exciting commercial opportunities that will connect those farmers to more of what they need to the benefit of all, across the food supply chain. This is a big, global business.”
Mobile platforms are at the forefront of agritech
While organisations in countries classified as MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries) are working hard to develop agricultural applications involving robotics, blockchain technology and machine learning (a subset of AI), mobile applications are at the forefront of digital transformation in Africa.
In Rwanda, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has developed an app that informs farm workers about diseases that attack livestock and provides information on weather, market prices for crops, and nutritious foods.
In Nigeria, Kitovu offers a data-driven mobile platform that collects, analyses and aggregates soil and geolocation data. It then feeds this information back to farmers, providing them with information about soil and crop-specific fertilisers, improved seedlings, and agrochemicals. It also allows potential buyers to obtain information on produce.
Launched in 2016, the start-up is run by a team of young Africans who claim Kitovu’s applications help farmers triple their crop yield whilst guaranteeing the sale of produce. Post-harvest losses and wastage average at around 40% of crops in Africa, which can directly impact the income of a farmer. Kitovu’s mobile platform also serves as a general information hub for farmers, providing agriculture-related research, facts about aid services, and policy frameworks set forth by the government.
Start-ups aim at trade and finance
Two critical issues that rural-based smallholder farmers face are access to markets and access to finance. Founded in 2015 by two Ghanaians, AgroCenta aims to solve these problems. The company has developed two platforms, AgroTrade and AgroPay.
AgroTrade is a supply-chain platform that connects smallholder farmers with large off-takers so they can trade directly. AgroPay acts as a financial inclusion platform that provides smallholder farmers who have traded on AgroTrade with a financial statement they can then use to gain access to finance. The company claims to have already increased the income of farmers within their network by almost 25%. It currently serves 15 communities spread out in four regions within Ghana, with more than 46,000 individual farmers registered on the platform.
Another start-up focusing on financial inclusion is Farmcrowdy, which provides financial support to farmers by allowing those outside the agriculture industry to sponsor individual farms.
To date, more than 11,000 farmers have received sponsorship from about 42,000 people. On its mobile application, Farmcrowdy allows farmers and sponsors to monitor their farms through text, image and video updates and is available for both arable and livestock farmers via Google Play or the iOS app store. Farmcrowdy also provides farmers with information on improved seeds as well as access to educational material and training on modern farming techniques. In addition, it connects farmers to markets in which they can sell their produce.
The role of drones grows
One of the biggest challenges that African farmers face in accessing export markets is their over-reliance on pesticides. AcquahMeyer Dronetech is addressing the problem by using drones for high-precision agricultural spraying. The Accra-based company provides crop-pest nutrition management services in Ghana. They also provide “real time observational technology and NDVI [normalized difference vegetation index] data to generate insights on water management, disease prevention and even warn you about potential problems and therefore provide you with healthier crops and bigger yields,” according to the company website. Not only are they able to monitor crop production and offer targeted interventions, but the drones act as “flying scarecrows” to scare away birds that eat seeds and destroy crops.
Cape Town-based Aerobotics, meanwhile, also uses drones and applies machine-learning algorithms to aerial imagery to identify crop pests and disease. Aerobotics analyses imagery captured by drones and satellites to discover and analyse problems affecting trees, vines and crops. Their analysis can pinpoint problems with individual trees and vines. The company’s software can do predictive analytics and it says that banks and insurance companies are also finding the information useful when assessing clients’ risks.
New agritech platforms increasingly adopt AI
AI is increasingly being used in agritech, especially by start-ups. Zambia-based AgriPredict leverages AI help farmers better manage potential risks and disasters such as droughts, pests and diseases. Like many other pan-African agritech providers, AgriPredict offers mobile and web-browser versions of their application, using machine learning to predict the weather and identify diseases.
Farmers using ArgiPredict can take a photo of an infected crop and the platform will give a real-time diagnosis, treatment options and the location of the nearest agro-dealer (speciality agricultural supply store). AgriPredict’s services are available via its smartphone applications, on social media — including Whatsapp, or on a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) platform for farmers that may not own a smartphone.
AI is being applied in a variety of ways by start-ups to overcome longstanding hurdles to efficient agriculture-related trade. For example, one of the barriers to entry when it comes to buying and selling livestock is the vast distances people need to cover in order to attend auctions. Swiftvee saw the problem and addressed it by creating an online agricultural trading platform that conducts real-time livestock auctions using AI to connect foreign livestock buyers with sellers across the South African market. Its no-frills approach to trading is breaking down barriers to entry, and Swiftvee recently received a substantial investment to extend operations beyond South Africa and into the neighbouring states.
Both the agricultural sector and the small, but vibrant, technology sector are crucial in the quest for a secure, prosperous 21st century for Africa. When they come together to build products and services that dramatically improve agricultural outcomes, then the whole continent benefits.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Daniel.)