Inarguably, agriculture is the mainstay in most African economies, contributing an average of 30 to 60 per cent of GDP; 30 per cent of the value of exports and providing employment, to about two-thirds of the continent’s working population.
According to McKinsey and Company, more than 60 per cent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers. In cognizance, of the pivotal role played by agriculture in the continent, the African Union (AU) declared 2014 as the Year of Agriculture and Food Security; stimulating leaders to treat agriculture not only as a viable solution to eradicate poverty and hunger but also as a major contributor to economic development deserving of massive investments.
However, in stark contrast, the current drought pertinently in the Horn of Africa only highlights the peak of the continent’s food insecurity, as at least 18.4 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity and rising malnutrition across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. This figure could increase to 20 million by September, according to UNICEF.
In addition, 7.1 million people are now acutely food insecure in Somalia, 7.2 million in Ethiopia and some 4.1 million in Kenya, are severely food insecure due to the drought. An estimated 7 million livestock, which pastoralist families rely upon for their livelihoods, have died across the region. The surge in the price of fertilizers caused by the Russia-Ukraine war has further exacerbated the situation.
Could investments in science and technology be the answer to Africa’s food insecurity? Inarguably, significant efforts have been made but remain a far cry from full realization. This was a major topic of discussion during the recent Second Africa-Wide Science, Technology and Innovation High-Level Conference organized by AATF in collaboration with the African Union Development Agency-NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD) and the Government of Rwanda. It was established that investing in science and technology, is critical for Africa’s agricultural growth. African governments and regional economic blocs were called upon to increase funding for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), and create a conducive environment for technology adoption in agriculture.
The AU Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024); place science, technology and innovation at the epicentre of Africa’s socio-economic development and growth. It was developed during the formulation of the broader and long-term AU Agenda 2063; and is the first of the ten-year incremental phasing strategies to respond to the demand for science, technology and innovation; to impact critical sectors such as agriculture, energy, environment, health, infrastructure development, mining, security and water. The Strategy was anchored on six distinct priority areas that contribute to the achievement of AU’s vision. Chief among them is the eradication of hunger and achieving food security, backed up by the reinforcing pillar of promoting an enabling environment for STI development in the African continent.
The Executive Director of AATF, Dr. Canisius Kanangire, noted that the agriculture sector is rapidly expanding in Africa; to embrace a wide range of concepts, to meet the increase in demand for food and nutrition security. At the core of this process, he noted, is the need to integrate and explore STI, to drive agricultural productivity for prosperity among farmers in Africa.
“Creating an enabling environment for technology and innovation is an essential requirement in enabling African countries to address constraints that impede agricultural, environment and health development. Investing in new farming technology for Africa, from better seeds to digital tools to machinery, is the best opportunity for transforming African agriculture into an engine of economic growth that will have benefits far beyond the farm sector,” stated Dr. Kanangire.
Furthermore, he noted that most Africans are smallholder farmers, and agriculture is their best opportunity to secure a more promising future.
However, he added that millions remain impoverished because unlike farmers in other parts of the world, they lack consistent access to targeted, affordable agriculture innovations that would allow them to prosper. In reiteration, the acting Director of Knowledge Management and Programme Evaluation at AUDA-NEPAD, Martin Bwalya, emphasized that there is a need to adopt sustainable agriculture technologies, which cover the entire spectrum of farming systems.
The Rwandese Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Geraldine Mukeshimana noted that it was a paradox that Africa is not a food powerhouse, yet about 60 per cent of arable land is found in Africa. According to her, this has been caused by the insufficient use of technological innovations to increase productivity, and eliminate post-harvest losses whilst adding value to agricultural produce.
She further highlighted that scaling up STI in agriculture, is key in building sustainable and resilient food systems; calling for the effective implementation of STISA-2024.
One of the key development priorities for the African Development Bank (AfDB) included in the ‘High 5s Agenda’ is ‘Feed Africa’, well aligned to the UN SDGs. In light of this, the Bank has recently approved a US$1.5 billion Africa Emergency Food Production Facility; set to benefit 20 million farmers in the continent to access certified seed, fertilizer and technology necessary to improve yield.
This initiative targets to support smallholder farmers and was in response to avert the looming food crisis; caused by the disruption in food supplies emanating from the Russia-Ukraine war, thereby filling the food shortfall. The crisis has created a shortage by at least 30 million metric tons of food especially wheat, maize and soybeans imported from both countries. The bank noted that the facility was designed to boost the local production of cereals and oil grains; as the most effective and efficient way to build resilience across Africa’s food systems.
Among the key activities of AEFPF is to connect farmers through e-wallet systems, i.e., digitizing the procurement of agro-inputs and simultaneously allow reach to farmers in a transparent manner, which will truly revolutionize the transformation of agriculture,” says AfDB’s Solomon Quaynor, Vice President for Private Sector, Infrastructure and Industrialization.
To boot Microsoft has recently reaffirmed its commitment to working with both the private and public sectors, to accelerate digital transformation in African agriculture, with a goal to increase food security in the continent. During a virtual roundtable panel discussion, Microsoft Kenya Acting Country Manager Kunle Awosika, noted that the company is committed to deepening investments in AgriTech on the continent; to enable data-driven, precise and connected farming that optimizes yields, boosts farm productivity and increases profitability.
In reiteration, Thule Lenneiye, ATO Coordinator, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives highlighted that “Through partnerships such as the one with Microsoft, we can offer our smallholder farmers valuable services, that help them modernize and digitize age-old farming practices, increasing productivity and boosting food security for our communities across the country.”
Agritech changes the face of agriculture largely by democratizing information. To drive digitalization in agriculture, Microsoft in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture is investing in the Kenya National Agriculture Platform. In light of this, a developer team based in the country has developed an Agri chatbot, which provides extension and advisory services to smallholder farmers, utilizing either smartphones or feature phones, via WhatsApp, Telegram and SMS. Currently, the services on Agribot are proving invaluable to over 400,000 farmers on the platform, providing them with access to all the relevant information, from the Ministry and the private sector.
The leading technology company additionally announced that it’s extending its partnership with the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA was founded in 2006 by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based on a shared vision that investing in agriculture technology; is the most viable path to reducing poverty and hunger in Africa. This came to be known as the first ‘green revolution’ which is said to have bypassed Africa.
The two first partnered in 2019 in the co-creation of the AgriBot, as a digital solution for localized extension and advisory services for smallholder farmers. However, the new phase of the relationship targets to promote digital innovation and technology, as an enabler to connect agriculture ecosystems, sustainably integrating stakeholders in the service of strategic value chains. In reiteration, AGRA Kenya country manager John Macharia stated,” At AGRA, we realized early on that digital innovation, is critical in advancing food security and poverty eradication in Africa.
Our partnership with Microsoft will directly support governments, SMEs and farmers by bringing the digital tools needed to build resilient food systems.” With a projected value of USUS$ 1 trillion by 2030, Africa’s agriculture sector is set for exponential growth in the coming decade. Last month, the Canadian government announced a US$78 million contribution to a funding kitty by the AfDB, to aid local food producers to improve their yield. The money is scheduled to be disbursed as concessional loans, targeting SMEs involved in agribusiness especially those founded by women.
Could GMOs Redefine Africa’s Agriculture?
The myths surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) Foods in Africa are steadily being demystified, as food insecurity continues to bite. Could GMOs be the solution to curbing this perennial crisis? In other parts of the world, GMOs continue to shape the future of agricultural production, but in Africa, this has been slow due to fears around potential health risks such as cancer upon continued intake. According to research, there is no evidence that GM foods have any negative effects. Several countries in the continent have adopted GM crop farming and the number is growing exponentially, as climate change continues to affect agricultural production due to erratic weather patterns.
GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques; often plants that have been modified to achieve certain traits, such as drought tolerance, and pest-resistant utilizing recombinant DNA techniques or genetic engineering. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments, and do not present risks to human health. Some of the advantages that African farmers can reap from GM crop farming include reduced production costs, increased yields and higher income.
GM crop cultivation has a plethora of benefits to farmers, for instance, those who grow commodity crops such as maize or soy, do less tilling which reduces topsoil erosion or runoff fertilizer. Smallholder farmers in the continent have been reporting higher revenues from GM crops, due to better yields and less expenditure on inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. Some African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Eswatini and Sudan; are producing GM crops such as drought-tolerant maize, herbicide-tolerant rice, and insect-resistant cowpea among many others.
Every country exercises sovereign control over its GMOs, managing its own GMO seed production and distribution, primarily using local seed companies. Farmers in these countries can only access seeds, which have been approved for commercial use by their governments. Currently, crops such as vitamin-fortified cassava, virus-resistant sweet potatoes, and potatoes resistant to late blight disease among others; are undergoing research and development in Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania.
AgriTech Startups Revolutionizing Africa’s Agriculture
Agriculture Technology (Agritech) companies have been swiftly mushrooming in the continent, to seal the productivity deficit, thereby aiding in alleviating food insecurity in the continent. These startups deploy world-class technologies such as automated irrigation, soil sensor drones among other cutting–edge technologies; including digital systems to assist farmers to acquire knowledge, financing, accessing markets, insurance or inputs. Funding for AgriTech startups has been rapidly growing; the average amount of capital raised by AgriTech startups in Africa was US$3.7 M in 2020, US$2.8M in 2019 and US$1.8M in 2018.
Some startups that have put Africa’s AgriTech scene on the map include South Africa’s Aerobotic and AgriProtein; Ghana’s AgroCenta; Egypt’s Agrimatic; Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy; Zambia’s AgriPredict; and Kenya’s Hello Tractor and Twiga Foods.
With perspective to the technology deficit in Africa’s agricultural sector, MasterCard and Ecobank group, have recently partnered to connect millions of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. MasterCard’s Farm Pass is a digital platform that makes it safer and easier, for farmers to sell their produce at a fair price. Smallholder farmers will be able to sell their produce affordably, access quality inputs and farming information, make digital payments, and develop a financial profile that unlocks financing opportunities for inputs and working capital.
The platform provides one agricultural marketplace, bringing together all relevant stakeholders. The platform is set to address challenges such as limited access to markets, securing quality inputs, and access to relevant financial tools to enable farmers to run sustainable businesses.
Farm Pass offers a digital platform that makes it easier for smallholder farmers, to move from subsistence to commercial farming; thereby addressing food insecurity in the continent, increasing competitiveness and stimulating agricultural growth. Since its inception in 2015, the platform has reached one million smallholder farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and India; enabling them to command 25 to 50 per cent higher prices and increase harvest productivity.
The platform is in line with Mastercard’s vision to connect one billion people and 50 million SMEs, to the digital economy by 2025. Integrating their businesses with payment systems, Farm Pass enables smallholder farmers to build a digital transaction record; that can facilitate formal credit or other financial services from banks and other financial institutions.
Much more remains unexplored in this field, for Africa to achieve food security and remain competitive, as it ushers in the fourth industrial revolution.