How far can agri-tech go in Africa?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 12 September 2022 18:14

Farmers present their maize harvest at the collection centre facilitated by Safaricom DigiFarm App, that helps agribusinesses and small holding farmers to share information and transact easily, in Sigor village of Bomet County
Farmers present their maize harvest at the collection centre facilitated by Safaricom DigiFarm App, that helps agribusinesses and small holding farmers to share information and transact easily, in Sigor village of Bomet County, Kenya May 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia

Hundreds of agric-tech products have been springing up across Africa, which has witnessed - over the past couple of years - a dramatic increase in foreign funding earmarked for agricultural technology.

However, longstanding challenges ought to be tackled for such state-of-the-art solutions to prevail and be sustained in African nations, where climate adaptation and smart farming are growing more pressing.

Earlier this year, Ventures Africa reported that African agri-tech startups had received $95m worth of funding in 2021, recording a 58.5% year-on-year increase. The amount constitutes 4.4% of the overall funding that African tech startups received last year.

A McKinsey report however underscores that large swathes of small-scale farmers remain in dire need of such technologies. According to the study, more than 60% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers.

Various solutions already available

During the 2022 Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), which took place in Kigali from 5 to 9 September, The Africa Report spoke to several companies and institutions that are championing agri-tech on the continent.

UPL OpenAg’s Florent Clair, head of sustainability partnerships in Africa and Middle East, spoke of the company’s solution, Zeba, which seeks to reduce irrigation water consumption.

If it matches our requirements, we clap, if it doesn’t, we don’t do what they want and we move on

Made from corn starch, Zeba absorbs water and nutrients worth up to 500 times its own weight, and then intermittently releases them during the growing season. The solution was successfully deployed to a potato growing trial conducted by UPL and the University of Cape Pretoria, says Clair. Earlier in 2020, the company and partners also introduced Fawligen, an application that detects Fall armyworm through photos.

Meanwhile, Hello Tractor, a Nigeria-based company, connects tractor owners to smallholder farmers in need of tractor services. Wefarm and M-Farm also help the small-scale farming community secure assorted resources.

Accessibility, affordability challenges

What makes deployment of technologies a daunting task is the challenging conditions in which farmers ply their trade across Africa.

Millions of small- and medium-scale farmers on the continent have no smartphones or even internet access, and cannot afford to obtain many forms of technology. “The challenge is how do we make them accessible, affordable, and available to farmers,” Clair says.

Lilian Ndungu, an agriculture technology advisor at Tony Blair Institute, tells The Africa Report that technology has to be implemented in the presence of needed enablers in order to pay off.

Our research needs to be responsive to the demands on the ground

The institute, therefore, advises in nearly two dozen countries on policy formulation and action plans that can create an enabling environment for the deployment of agri-tech, she says, adding that smartphones and the internet are obvious prerequisites.

In Rwanda, Tony Blair Institute has been advising the government on partnerships that can help provide smartphones to farmers. “We have worked with the government in Rwanda to review broadband policy because of the recognition that if technology is to make an impact on farmers, they should access it,” she says.

Accommodating the illiterate

Additionally, developing applications that technologically illiterate and uneducated farmers can use are key to spreading agri-tech, Nixon Gecheo, senior programme officer for digital systems and solutions for agriculture at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), tells The Africa Report.

To achieve this, AGRA is recruiting village-based advisors (VBAs) and community-based advisors (CBAs) across the continent. “At AGRA, VBAs have been trained in technology and in turn they are the ones to reach out to farmers,” he says.

“The idea is that since we know that farmers are illiterate in terms of technology uptake, this becomes the interface,” says Gecheo. “We can translate the content to … local language[s] which the local farmer can understand.”

AGRA has recruited about 32,600 VBAs and each is able to reach 250-300 farmers (a total of about 9 million), according to Gecheo.

Focusing on homegrown tech?

Yemi Akinbamijo, executive director of the Accra-based Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), says the continent shouldn’t be importing technology and research, but rather invest in homegrown innovations that are tailored for local conditions.

“Our research needs to be responsive to the demands on the ground,” he tells The Africa Report, saying that Africa’s capacity to generate homegrown technology is weak.

Akinbamijo reckons that governments have to drive the agenda with funding from their coffers, which does not happen.

Due to the lack of government support, researchers and innovators have no choice but to seek foreign funding, says Akinbamijo, and thus foreigners are the ones driving Africa’s research and technology agenda. This may or may not work. “If it matches our requirements, we clap, if it doesn’t, we don’t do what they want and we move on.”

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