From invaluable farming advice shared via text message to livestock vaccines delivered when and where they are needed thanks to a mobile phone service, agri-tech and precision farming are changing the face of agriculture across Africa.
This transformation is an urgent imperative. With global warming threatening harvests, and the world’s population set to grow to around 10 billion by 2050, a sustainable agricultural revolution is needed to secure food supplies and protect the resources that sustain us.
For Ndubuisi Ekekwe, Nigerian founder of precision farming startup Zenvus, African farming must change because traditional practices keep many farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty.
“What we have been doing for generations has not worked so now there needs to be a paradigm shift to try something new that can turn farmers into business people rather than custodians of ancestral history and ancestral norms and dogmas,” he said.
“What will drive that change are new techniques, new procedures and new processes. We believe that precision farming is the separation between what was in the past and what we believe is going to be the future.”
Because of climate change and population growth, that future looks ever more challenging.
Cereal yields are expected to decline as temperatures rise, water scarcity will threaten crops, and biodiversity loss, including of critical crop pollinators, will affect fruit and vegetable yields as will declining soil quality. This will be critical in Africa, where agriculture is the largest contributor to gross domestic product and where population growth is placing ever more strain on the land.
Ekekwe notes that whereas land was once left fallow for up to 15 years in the past, this is no longer possible for most farmers as they do not have excess land to rotate.
“So you are extracting more resources from the soil and the soil does not have the capacity to replenish itself before you come back. Combined with changes in the weather, you see why it is a very challenging moment for agriculture in Africa unless precision agriculture comes into play,” he said.
Zenvus uses proprietary electronic sensors to collect soil data, like moisture levels and nutrients, and sends them to a cloud server for analysis. The company can then advise farmers on what fertilizer to use and how best to irrigate the crops. The system also uses special spectral cameras to build crop health indices to help detect drought stress, pests and diseases.
Advocates, like Ekekwe, argue that precision farming is better for the environment because it uses sensors, GPS mapping tools, data-analytics software and robots to customize the care given to crops to make all inputs more efficient and increase yields.
“It’s the best possible thing that can happen in agriculture but the problem is that the initial cost of investment is high. And that is why many people do not go into it,” Ekekwe said. “But I think it is going to help the environment more because it is going to optimize the use of resources that the soil and crops need. And that is what the world needs.”
In developed countries, precision farming uses the internet of things, robotics, blockchain, big data, artificial intelligence and drones to improve yields.
But these large-scale innovations are often not suited to African smallholders, whose farms are generally less than two hectares. Illiteracy and lack of connectivity in some remote areas can also be an issue while poor roads and lack of electricity are also impediments to progress.
For African farmers, the most successful innovations often centre around the delivery of up-to-date, useful information.
For example, Wefarm is a free peer-to-peer service that enables farmers to share information via text message, without the internet and without having to leave their farm. Farmers ask questions and receive crowd-sourced answers from other farmers around the world in minutes, allowing them to increase yields, tackle the effects of climate change, source the best seeds and gain insight into pricing. The service is also available online.
So far, around 660,000 farmers in Kenya and Uganda use the service and there are plans to expand to other African countries.
Another successful startup is Cowtribe, which uses mobile technology to provide animal health services to livestock farmers in Ghana. The subscriber platform links farmers to veterinary services, offering vaccination reminders, outbreak alerts and animal husbandry management advice. If a farmer needs vet services, CowTribe coordinates the operation to make sure a qualified vet comes to deliver the right treatment even to “last mile”, hard-to-reach farms.
AfriScout, or the ‘shepherd’s eye in the sky’, is a mobile service delivered by Project Concern International, providing information on water and vegetation conditions on local grazing maps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. This makes it easier for pastoralists to find grazing, and reduces the risk of animals dying. The app uses satellite images to collect information.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has also released a series of agricultural services apps providing farmers with real-time information on weather, livestock care, markets and nutrition. FAO has also released an app to track and monitor the spread of Fall Armyworm, a devastating pest that attacks maize and other crops.
These kinds of pioneering solutions to address environmental challenges will be at the heart of the fourth UN Environment Assembly next March. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
UN Environment has also set up the TEEBAgriFood initiative to provide a comprehensive economic evaluation of the “eco-agri-food systems” complex. This framework is the first to present all the wider benefits and costs associated with the eco-agri-food chain, allowing a more informed assessment by decision-makers such as governments and institutions.
For Ekekwe, data is the key to success and represents the real value of precision farming.
“The reason we are destroying this earth is because no one is even measuring anything,” he said. “What precision agriculture is really doing is saying, ‘at least, let’s know what is going on’.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.