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The sky’s the limit if African agriculture can unleash the potential of technology

By , Africa Goes Digital board member and co-founder of SOWIT
Africa , 15 Jan 2021
Hamza Rkha Chaham, Africa Goes Digital board member and co-founder of SOWIT.
Hamza Rkha Chaham, Africa Goes Digital board member and co-founder of SOWIT.

While large parts of the world are hyper-connected and information flows faster than ever, the African family farmer is often isolated. Typically, she does not have access to information to know when to sow, fertilise or harvest to maximise yields.

Farmers in industrialised countries can rely on actionable information provided by private or public organisations, but African farmers often lack connectivity, training or tools to face these decisions which can be critical for their livelihoods and food security.

Enter a small, flying robot controlled remotely. The drone can monitor crop health, map a field and assess damage after a flood or a drought.

Drones are one of many tools which are starting to revolutionise agriculture in Africa. In doing so, technology can help our continent weather the economic impact of Covid-19 and realise its full potential.

This transformation has never been as urgent as it is today. More than 240 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were undernourished in 2018, representing nearly a quarter of its population, the highest prevalence in the world. The pandemic, its ensuing lockdowns and border closures are expected to push millions more towards poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, agriculture is by far the single most important economic activity in Africa. It provides employment for about two-thirds of the continent’s working population. This comes with vulnerability to climate shocks, price volatility and economic downturns.

But it also presents us with a tremendous opportunity: by raising agricultural yields through technology, companies and governments can help curb youth unemployment, boost economies and strengthen food security through a single set of interventions.

Technology like drones are particularly well-suited to help address some of the biggest challenges of our time through agriculture.

Precision agriculture based on near real-time data through GPS systems, sensors and robots can vastly improve the accuracy, and therefore the efficiency, of a farming operation while reducing inputs and limiting costs.

Technology can help sustainably increase yields while reducing fertilizer use, optimizing water use, saving money and protecting the environment. Drones, for example, can help monitor natural resources and track poaching, tree-cutting and the encroachment of agricultural land on nature. By protecting biodiversity, they can help ensure ecosystems stay balanced and can sustain food production.

Drone mapping can also help empower women to access land and property rights and reduce gender inequality in farming. The UN estimates that if women had access to the same rights, inputs, labor and crops, their productivity would reach that of men and lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty.

Closing the gender gap in agricultural productivity would lead to an increase of nearly 19 percent in crop production in Rwanda and seven percent in Malawi, for example. At least 80,000 people in Tanzania and 238,000 people in Rwanda could be lifted out of poverty per year over a 10-year period with more equality in farming.

Despite this huge potential, technology in African agriculture often lacks the capacity, resources and infrastructure to be used systematically. Before individual farmers can benefit from greater connectivity to information, an entire, connected ecosystem must be developed to ensure that no one is left behind.

African companies themselves need to be innovation-driven to develop solutions adapted to smallholder farmers and their unique contexts.

Investing in the continent's most promising entrepreneurs can compound the benefits for agriculture. For example, in 2019, Africa Goes Digital Inc, our association of digital entrepreneurs based in 21 countries across the African continent, helped innovators reach more than 200 farmers’ organisations, 65 government agencies and 29,000 farmers.

For companies and farmers to be able to thrive, governments urgently need to develop supportive regulations for new technologies such as drones. In 2017, only a few African countries had drone regulations and some even had temporary bans. Since then, the African Union (AU) Executive Council recommended that all Member States harness the opportunities offered by drone technology to transform agriculture across the continent.

According to a study soon to be published by the World Bank, as of 2020, nearly 40 percent of African countries passed ad hoc drone regulations or other rules such as directives and circulars and 25 percent were drafting new regulations or revising existing ones.

Technology-led innovations should be supported by more research in order to build an evidence base of positive returns and prioritize the most effective interventions. CTA’s flagship report, The Digitalisation of African Agriculture report, was the first of its kind to quantify the market and potential of digital tools and services, providing governments, donors and companies the information needed to make informed investments and commitments.

The use of drones and technology in agriculture can help address pressing challenges such as hunger, environmental protection, rural poverty and equality. Just as science, data and technology will help us overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, it can also help build back better providing we first build back smarter.

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