How mobile apps are driving the African agricultural tech revolution

With 60 percent of all jobs on the African continent now in agriculture, we look at five startups developing technological solutions to help improve the farming industry

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Across sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture technology - or agritech - is experiencing unprecedented levels of growth as farm labourers look for solutions to help them continue to work in the face of unpredictable weather, an exploding population and an uncertain economic landscape.

According to a report released last year by Disrupt-Africa, since 2016, over US$19 million has been invested in the agritech sector, with the number of startups operating in the market increasing by 110 percent during the same period.

Agritech in Africa is not a new phenomenon - startups have been active in the market since 2010. However, farming accounts for 60 percent of all jobs on the continent, and food production needs to grow by 60 percent over the next dozen years  to feed the expanding population, according to a Brookings research report. In these circumstances, the importance of agritech continues to grow.

Although the challenges facing farm workers can vary greatly depending on the location of the farm and the sociopolitical context in which it exists, one thing is constant across the continent’s agriculture industry: if you can’t get your product to market, you can’t sustain your livelihood.

While countries classified as MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries) are falling over themselves to develop agricultural applications involving robotics, blockchain technology or machine learning, in Africa mobile applications continue to be at the forefront of digital transformation in general, and agritech in particular.

In Rwanda, for example, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has developed an application that informs farm workers about diseases that attack livestock and provides information on weather, market prices for crops, and nutritious foods.

Although the average age of a farm worker in Africa is about 60, the continent has the world’s youngest population - 60 percent of its 1.2 billion people 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.

Despite the significant growth in recent years of startups operating in the pan-African agricultural market, research has shown that 90 percent of Africa’s agritech market remains untapped and could be worth over US$2.2 billion. Below are five agritech startups that are already operating throughout Africa, taking advantage of this emerging yet thriving industry.

Kitovu offers a mobile data hub

Kitovu is a Nigerian-based, 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 startup 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 percent 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.

AgroCenta aims at trade and finance

Founded in 2015 by two Ghanaians, AgroCenta aims to improve the agricultural value chain in Ghana by solving two critical problems rural-based smallholder farmers face: access to market and access to finance.

The company has developed two platforms, AgroTrade and AgroPay. The former is a supply-chain platform that connects smallholder farmers with large off-takers so they can trade directly.

The latter is 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. AgroCenta claims to have already increased the income of farmers within their network by almost 25 percent.

The company currently serves 15 communities spread out in four regions within Ghana, with more than 46,000 individual farmers registered on the platform.

Farmcrowdy connects sponsors to farmers

Farmcrowdy describes itself as "Nigeria’s first digital agriculture platform," providing 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.

AgriPredict taps AI for forecasts

Zambia-based AgriPredict is an agritech company that leverages artificial intelligence to help farmers better manage potential risks and disasters such as droughts, pests and diseases.

Like many other pan-African argitech solutions, AgriPredict exists in the form of a mobile and web browser 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 smart phone applications, on social media - including Whatsapp, or on a USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) platform for farmers that may not own a smartphone.

Yellow Beast

One of the biggest problems facing farmers across the African continent is drought. Between 2015 and 2018, South Africa’s Western Cape region experienced a severe water shortage, with the water level of the major dams supplying the city falling below 13.5 percent during January 2018.

In response to an innovation challenge calling for solutions to help improve the efficiency of water use in the agriculture industry during this difficult period, Yellow Beast Tech developed a precision irrigation application for crop farmers.

The startup, comprising young entrepreneurs, develops, manufactures, sells and installs its micro-irrigation device, called Nosets Simplified Irrigation. The device uses artificial intelligence to automate the irrigation process. It's designed to sense the most favourable conditions in the soil-crop system and precisely administer the correct amount of water for the best possible plant health. This system not only reduces the amount of water wastage but also requires minimal effort from farmers.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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