Could digital agriculture end Africa’s food scarcity as it is projected to house nearly a population of two billion by 2050? Farms need to accelerate their productivity in an even “faster rate than the global average to avoid continued mass hunger”. However, some of the challenges that the continent needs to surpass on the way are:
- Growing population meets a threat of low farm production made worse by the changing weather.
- Fallow periods are getting shorter.
- Young populations are migrating to urban areas as the farming community continues to dwindle.
As the demand for food is on the rise while the crop yields are dropping due to land conditions, the agro sector needs a redesigning for an assured food security.
Governments in African countries have sought to improve the farming scenario by introducing policies, while entrepreneurs from Africa are taking interest in helping the farmers to improve crop yields through digital agriculture with the help of “cloud computing, computing systems, connectivity, open-source software, and other digital tools” as they become “increasingly affordable and accessible”.
During the Digital Agriculture Conference, last year in Egypt, Sandra Broke from The World Bank pointed out that 85% of the country’s water consumption goes for agricultural sector, while enumerating the challenges, opportunities and the market potentials as perceived from their consultation rounds. She added further saying that there are “two global trends”:
- “Agriculture sector is expanding and becoming integrated eco-systems”
- “Agriculture is increasing in scale of activity and complexity”
Sandra Broke even suggested the use of blockchain technology to trace food to ensure “safety and quality”, as consumers are more and more looking for traceable food, while it can also be sold at higher prices.
The Managing Director of “Souktel’s Advisory Services group”, Maggie McDonough, in the same event talked about the company’s technology based solutions for the agriculture sector to help the farmers on the field. Souktel has experience in data driven agriculture as they collected and analysed big data to help the farmers know “what’s working and what isn’t”. Following are the use cases provided by McDonough:
- Problem: Souktel encountered the problem of accessing community in desperate need of technology.
- Solution: It devised services that reached the user group either by sms, IVR, smartphone applications, or messenger based applications, so that various users’ group could be connected in various ways depending on what suited them the most.
- Problem: Under DFID funding, Souktel had to empower smallholder farmers to reach aggregated market, as the latter “couldn’t easily source produce from smallholder farmers”, whereby making them “basically invisible” to the aggregators while poor data connectivity became a major hurdles as some places even lacked the connectivity altogether.
- Solution: It developed a mobile “bids and offer system” built on USSD channel, which allows real-time transaction and runs on low bandwidth wherein the smallholder farmers could enlist the commodities they wished to sell, so that the aggregators could review and purchase them in return.
- Problem: Under the Morocco Economic Competition Project, in short MEC, Souktel met with a challenge of “Insufficient use of water resources by smallholder farmers”. In this project, the company worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Water and Environment in Morocco. The government had collected a huge amount of weather data but failed to decide “what to do with them”.
However, they did give out guidance and warnings to farmers. For example, they would give guidance regarding the amount of water needed to be irrigated on a given plot of land. But the farmers didn’t have any ways to measure water for irrigation.
- Solution: Souktel worked to “automate the process” besides making the information more actionable to the farmers. Thus, they came up with an algorithm to “triangulate” the weather, crop and farmers’ input data and send a daily message to the farmers about how long they needed to run their pump.
- Problem: Souktel had to collect data from over 40 thousand beneficiaries spread across 19 districts, besides finding a way to help the young generation get employment in the informal agriculture sector of the country.
- Solution: It built a multi channel data collection and analysis system, which could be accessed by implementers, the Ministry, the private sector and anybody interested for that matter. Secondly, the company also built a job matching system using mobile phone, which means it is easy to access and both the jobseekers as well as the employers could register in the platform. An algorithm then would provide the best match between the employers and the job seekers. As a result, ten thousand youths found employment in agriculture sector.
Technology and digital agriculture are intertwined, as Bosch recently made an “important innovation” based on IoT and devised an iron stick with sensors capable of measuring soil temperature and moisture level. The data then gets transferred to the Cloud which can be accessed by farmers, who have used this technology to grow asparagus.
On the other hand, Abundant Robotics came up with a robot that collects apples and uses its sensors and cameras to detect ripe apples. Similarly, Eco-Robotics, a Swiss-based venture, has made a robot that “decreases the use of chemicals in agricultural lands”. With the help of GPS, sensors and cameras, it removes weeds and “applies insecticides directly to the plant only if it is necessary”.
In the UAE, drones are being used to “map farming areas across the country”. Similarly, “an organic farm in Sharjah” relies “heavily on sensors to determine the salinity and mineral content of the soil to ensure optimum crop growth with minimal use of water.” The UAE has also ventured into the commercial application of vertical farming with its “8,500sq ft farm” located in the Al Quoz industrial area of Dubai that produces “18 varieties of micro-greens, including rocket, kale, radishes, red cabbage, basil and mustard”.
SunCulture is a seller of “drip irrigation kits” that pumps water through solar energy, while FarmDrive provides financial support to “unbanked and underserved smallholder farmers”, similarly M-Farm and AgroSpaces offer “pricing data” that removes the cost difference between “farmers and buyers” which enables the former to “earn more”. AgroCenta and Farmerline provide “mobile and web technologies” to advice and inform the farmers about markets, and weather forecast. Likewise, many such organisations in Africa are supporting digital agriculture.
How is digital agriculture helping Africa?
In comparison to traditional methods, digital farming proves to be more sustainable and efficient. Precision farming helps to improve crop yield, technology connects farmers and agronomists and eases financial burdens besides making the farmers more informed about their trade.
In short, digital agriculture is boosting sustainability as well as efficiency at African farms:
- As per GSMA data, as on 2017, 44% of “sub-Saharan Africans” had mobile phones. Tapping into this digitisation, farming information is sent directly to farmers through “text message”.
- Data about soil pH, air humidity is harnessed with solar power to improve yields at farms.
- Farmers get access to real-time data through mobile app along with advice on the use of fertiliser and irrigation.
Learn more about “Six ways digitalization is helping Africa’s environment”.
In short, digital agriculture is transforming African farmers into “knowledge-based community” through improved “farm productivity” and reduced “input waste”. In the age of digital agriculture, satellites as well as drones are used for mapping or capturing an aerial shot of the arable land and to forecast weather while soil sensors allow real time crop management. Early warnings are generated by automated systems. Data for “temperature, nutrients, and vegetative health” are measured and analysed to help the farmers in fertilization and optimal irrigation.
Future food scarcity is not limited to Africa alone it is a global concern as the agricultural revolution, catching up with its connected platforms of technology, AI, big data, and automation, seems to be the only solution. Sooner or later the tide is going to affect the neighbourhood of Middle Eastern countries as well but they need to be prepared to embrace the change.
We see, Lebanon making “shy attempts” to an e-commerce platform in the country, whereby indicating the onset of market digitalisation which plays an important role in driving digital agriculture. But the question remains: will Lebanon adapt to this change or “get left behind”?