Farming, one of the world’s oldest industries, is beset by numerous challenges; scarcity of arable land, the spread of pests and diseases, biodiversity loss, and increasing climate change pressures. Another projected strain for the agricultural sector is the burgeoning world population; the global population is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will have doubled by then; the region will be home to one in every four people on the planet.
Agriculture is critical to the African economy, accounting for 23 per cent of GDP and 49 per cent of employment. This means that the continent’s output must thrive and meet the demands of its growing population. Africa must maximize agricultural productivity to ensure food security and economic growth, and technology is its biggest bet. As the sector steadily moves toward a more technologically advanced form, the following are some trends to watch out for on the continent.
More than ever, the negative effect of climate change has become evident; extreme weather, insect outbreak, erosion are all linked to climate change. Migration, rising sea levels, drought, land degradation, reduced agricultural yields are consequent concerns. To ensure that the world’s projected nine billion people do not go hungry by 2050, regenerative agriculture has become a globally adopted sustainable farming model. This agricultural practise aims to reverse climate change by restoring depleted soils.
Land degradation in Africa negatively impacts nearly half of all productive land, affecting well over 650 million people in Africa. Although the agricultural sector contributes about 25 per cent of all human-created GHG emissions, it also has a crucial role in ending the climate change crisis. How? It is through practices like conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, the use of compost, and regulated grazing. For example, ploughing and tillage break the soil structure and release a concentration of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By embracing low or no tilling, there is zero physical disturbance of the soil, and this increases soil health, boosts plant growth, and traps more carbon where it ought to be.
A report shows that by 2030, regenerative practices in Africa could be adding more than $15bn in gross value added per year and can increase up to $70bn by 2040 (one-fifth of the current agricultural GDP of sub-Saharan Africa). Agritech startups like Olam, Toutin, and Twiga are already reaping the rewards of preventative agriculture. Olam experienced an 80 per cent increase in cotton lint yields through regenerative techniques that include mulching and crop rotation. In Kenya, FarmAfrica is helping smallholder farmers with regenerative farming practices.
Aerial imagery involves using airborne technological devices to capture a geographical area. The image, often captured using a satellite or a low-altitude aircraft, such as a plane or a drone, provides the user/farmer with prime information/data about his crops. Amazingly, it can be done without the operator leaving the confines of his office. The farmer analyzes and interprets the image data to help him manage his farm and identify changes.
Drones with specialized sensors can alert farmers to changes like normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), leaf area index, and photochemical reflectance index. The NDVI provides the farmer with information about water pressure, infestations, crop diseases, and nutrient deficiency, all of which can affect crop productivity. With the aid of a drone, farmers can also decide when pruning might be necessary by looking at the tree canopy from above.
Aerial imagery from drones is essential for land mapping. The maps created from captured images are linked to land ownership records to create formal land registers and keep track of land ownership. Farmers can feel secure about their land ownership as a result of this.
On the continent, agritech companies like Aerobotics in South Africa and AcquahMeyer Drones in Ghana solve agricultural problems with aerial imagery. Aerobotics provide farmers with information to track trees, detect unhealthy ones, and act where needed. AcquaMeyer Amdrone Tech uses real-time observational technology and NDVI data to generate insights on water management, disease prevention and even warn farmers about potential problems.
Although users of this type of technology are few and far between, owing largely to the exorbitant cost of drones and the regulatory restrictions that surround their use, more farmers are likely to shift their attention to it due to its enticing benefits.
Indoor vertical farming
Because arable lands are rapidly disappearing due to climate change, and other factors, it has become essential to develop a more sustainable crop-growing method. Hence, the need for indoor vertical farming. This involves growing crops in vertically built layers through soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics.
Indoor vertical farming makes use of a nutrient tank. Nutrient solutions in the required quantities are dispensed to the tank from which the plant extracts nutrients for growth. This farming system requires no soil. Although about 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa, planting on these arable lands doesn’t ensure food security and the non-seasonal availability of agricultural produce. Farmers often have to battle with the adverse effects of climate change and rapid urbanization.
Indoor vertical farming techniques are ideal for ensuring food security, producing healthy crops, and meeting the growing urbanization challenges. Agritech startups such as SFarmLab in Nigeria and Women Smiles in Uganda are already active in this space. With climate change having such a large impact on agricultural productivity, the space will see more entrants this year. Sack gardens are used in Kenya to represent a local and practical form of a vertical farm.
Digital information sharing
Digitization has impacted every aspect of agriculture. Farmers can access a wealth of information with the simple press of a button – communicate with equipment providers, receive digital content, apply for loans, view weather forecasts, and converse with potential customers. Digitization assists farmers in finding buyers for their harvested produce, reducing food waste, and assisting farmers in making timely decisions, among other things.
Many actors are in this space, but the agricultural sector hungers for more. In Kenya, Hello Tractor collects tractor service requests to assist farmers with limited access to resources in obtaining convenient and affordable tractor services. Nigerian-based Farmz2u provides digital extension services to small local farmers, easy market access, high-quality input, and buyers for harvested produce.
If you haven’t seen it in real life, you’ve probably seen movies where robots act like humans. Today, some people around the world receive delivery packages from robots as well as coaching. In agriculture, we now have fruit picking robots, sheep shearing robots, de-weeding robots, crop spraying robots, etc.
For example, spraying robots can be unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) that apply fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals. Some robots distribute seeds, animal feed, and herbicides. These robots often perform their tasks precisely, even better than humans. Agricultural robots achieve a higher quality of fresh produce, lower production costs, and a decreased need for manual labour. On the continent, the Agricultural Robotics and Automation (Agra) is helping scale the use of robotics for agriculture.
Written by Adekunle Agbetiloye