Advancing Food Security in Africa Through Agricultural Innovations
Food security is still a major cause of concern for many African countries, and the majority of its people are on the brink of starvation. This was evidenced by the estimates from the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition around the World (SOFI), which showed that Africa’s food systems vulnerability resulted in about 21 percent of people suffering from hunger.
The stats represent roughly 282 million people in Africa, a clear indication that a higher share of its population is suffering. The case was worsened by the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw 46 million people in Africa become hungry.
Nothing has changed much in 2022. More than 14 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are already on the verge of starvation—about half of them children. According to the International Rescue Committee’s March 2022 report, this number will rise to 20 million by mid-2022 if the rains continue to fail, prices continue to increase, and world leaders don’t boost aid funding to meet the needs of people in crisis.
But that is only part of a short-term solution. Improving food security in Africa involves many moving parts, but it all starts by strengthening the agricultural sector. Africa needs large-scale dissemination of productivity-increasing technology and inputs, plus input and capital intensity, to drive long-term sustainable agribusiness growth.
Such innovations are highly essential considering agriculture is a significant source of livelihood and income for many African households. The continent has up to 33 million smallholder farmers who depend on agriculture for their survival.
However, a majority of them are yet to realize their full potential. The untapped agricultural potential, poor food systems, and harsh climatic conditions have subjected the continent to persistent poverty and deteriorating food security.
In the strive to navigate these challenges, Africa’s food systems need new investment vehicles that encompass innovation and digital and technology-driven solutions. Investing in innovations and technology and making them easily accessible to farmers is Africa’s best opportunity to deal with low farm productivity and enhance its food security. This can be done alongside good agricultural practices.
Research and Development
Such innovations, nonetheless, require investment in research – which Africa needs to focus more on. Most leaders and policymakers do not fathom the importance of research in increasing productivity in agriculture.
Although research and development investments require long gestation periods, over time, it yields higher profits for farmers, abundant food supply, increased opportunities, and a higher quality of life in rural households.
Sadly, investments in public research in agriculture, especially in Africa, are not keeping up with the need. There is, therefore, a need for significant increases in research and development investment and partnerships. Otherwise, food and agriculture systems will fall short of a vision for a healthier, more sustainable world.
Luckily, organizations such as AGRA – Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa have invested heavily in training the scientists needed to transform Africa’s seed production industry. Better yet, AGRA, in 2021, went a step further to launch the first Center of Excellence for Seed Systems in Africa (CESSA) to “champion the development of the quality seed of improved varieties on the continent.”
CESSA will convene seed actors to help fill gaps and build the capacities of scientists, developing varieties that respond to the needs of farmers in Sub Saharan Africa.
In Ethiopia, for instance, heat tolerant seeds which have been planted in lowland areas have enabled the country to increase its coverage to 60,000ha.
Innovations for Advancing Farming in Africa
With the world growing more digitally, the digital adoption sweeping across the continent holds promise to dramatically enhance smallholder productivity and incomes by enhancing aspects such as farm efficiency, traceability, reducing vulnerability, and improving farmers’ access to output, input, and financial markets.
Over the past few years, the agricultural sector in Africa has realized a slow yet, steady transition from the conventional farming methods to adopting technology that improves farm produce, increasing output and helping small-scale farmers optimize production.
Investing more in technology, therefore, could give farmers access to data, markets, and financial services, allowing them to plant, fertilize, harvest, and sell products more effectively.
One of the innovations that could improve food security in Africa if widely adopted is precision farming. This technology is ideal for maximizing yields and minimizing environmental impact, and it uses drones to help build sustainable agriculture.
The drones, for example, could take aerial images and weather forecasts and carry soil sensors, which could be adapted to manage crop growth in real-time. Such automated systems are ideal for providing early warnings on the deviations in crop growth.
In precision farming, farmers can measure and analyze soil data, including temperature, nutrients, and vegetative health. This helps them apply the right fertilizer and optimally irrigate their farms. The process improves agricultural productivity while reducing input waste by using analytics to facilitate data-driven farming practises for small-scale farmers.
Good examples of such innovations include UjuziKilimo, a Kenyan startup, which uses big data and analytic capabilities to help farmers improve productivity through precision insights. As a result, farmers can adjust the irrigation processes and determine the needs of individual plants.
SunCulture, another Kenyan company, sells drip irrigation kits that use solar energy to pump water from any source. This innovation has made irrigation affordable.
Meanwhile, thanks to digital technology, farmers can have access to real-time data and computational power, which enhances the effective selection and timing of product-to-market decisions, provision of credit, and access to micro-insurance.
Countries with digitized agriculture data and those that have embraced the sharing economy have realized new business models. They have also developed e-commerce platforms that connect farmers directly with markets, service providers, and aggregators.
This shortens the value chain and increases the profitability of smallholder farming. Incidentally, the sharing economy has also enabled smallholder farmers to access mechanized tools to improve their crop yields efficiently.
The most interesting part is that technology is exciting for the youth. Given that most of Africa’s population is under 30 years of age, technology in farming is bound to create more jobs as many will turn to farming as a business.
The challenge, however, is that they must be ready to confront the institutional challenges in the industry. Of course, critical infrastructure remains a challenge in Africa’s strive to entirely transform digitization in agriculture.
The implication is that agricultural tech startups must develop such a map as they introduce their technologies across the continent. On the other hand, governments could fund large-scale soil maps to accelerate precision farming.
Done correctly, digital technology opens the untapped potential for African farmers, investors, and entrepreneurs to improve food production and consumption efficiency. Technological innovations could bring major economic, social, and environmental benefits from research to mechanization, precision farming and an efficient food supply chain.
If Africa needs to strengthen its food systems and improve security, investing in technology is essential. This includes investments in ICTs, mechanization, and irrigation. The next step is to transform what is regarded as ‘traditional food crops’ into ‘today’s cash crops.’