With one-quarter of the world’s arable land, Africa is expected to play a leading role in ensuring the global population – expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050 – has access to a secure source of food. This has led the World Bank to predict that Africa’s agricultural sector will grow to $1-trillion by 2030.
However, despite 65% of the continent’s labour force being engaged in agriculture, and 32% of the continent’s GDP stemming from this sector, Africa only contributes 10% of global agricultural output. Key factors contributing to this is a lack of access to markets and financing, as well as productivity levels that are well below developed world standards.
For Africa’s agricultural sector to reach its potential and meet the food needs of a growing global population, improvements in four key areas need to be achieved, namely:
- Increased productivity, including access to financing and education, integration of end-to-end processes to track farm-to-fork, and affordable access to machinery;
- Improved food quality and safety through track-and-trace of the origin of products at every step of the logistics chain, as well as reducing the use of pesticides;
- Better international go-to-market by professionalising the marketing of African agricultural products, and enabling access to regional and global markets for smallholder farmers, who constitute the majority of Africa’s agricultural sector; and
- Improved government steering, aimed at guiding production and export, and prioritising securing food and nutrition needs of local populations.
The challenge of productivity
Africa’s agri sector consists mostly of a large number of subsistence farmers, who generally sell or trade their produce locally. Their output is often limited by their access to equipment and information: only 5% of the cultivated land on the continent makes use of irrigation, compared to 38% in Asia, while the spare use of fertiliser – as little as 7.4kg per hectare in Ghana compared to 100kg in South Asia – contributes to further underperformance. Many have no access to farming machines to automate some of the more time-consuming and physically demanding work.
There is also a prevailing disconnect between smallholder farmer production and real-time market needs, which hampers government efforts to steer the industry strategically to serve local economic and food security needs. One free trade agreement in the east of the continent was suspended after one of the governments involved identified that the food being exported was much-needed locally.
On the topic of exports: even Africa’s leading agricultural producers have limited access to global markets. Egypt and Nigeria may produce one-third of the continent’s agricultural output, but due to a lack of monitoring and unclear origin, the produce from these two agricultural powerhouses often fail to inspire confidence in global buyers, leaving smallholder farmers with only local market access to sell their goods.
This has created an urgent need to develop a holistic technology-led approach to addressing productivity and quality concerns across the entire agri value chain. Encouragingly, a number of powerful new technologies are emerging to digitise Africa’s agricultural sector and bring a slew of new advances in productivity and quality.
Digitising Africa’s agri-industry
Digital farming combines several key technologies to make farming more efficient and sustainable, and to create opportunities for rural farmers to gain access to the global marketplace.
The megatrend of hyperconnectivity, driven by IoT and mobile phones, is connecting every market participant and machine, from farmers and seed producers to equipment manufacturers, commodity markets, governments and other stakeholders. Smallholder farmers in Africa are enjoying the benefits of hyperconnectivity through mobile applications that enable farmers to get SMS notification of weather information, market prices, and best practice.
Connected sensors for crops and livestock are generating huge amounts of agricultural data that is processed by precision agriculture algorithms to optimise production activities such as irrigation, fertiliser use, and crop protection. This enables farmers to increase yields and maintain global quality standards while saving input resources, minimising any negative effects on the environment.
Improving access through innovation
By increasing transparency, digital agriculture also enables smallholder farmers to have end-to-end track-and-trace for certification requirements to fully integrate them into the supply chain. The Rural Sourcing Management solution developed by SAP in partnership with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and other private sector partners, is integrating smallholder farmers into regional and global value chains.
It not only connects them to global markets, but a built-in e-learning component helps to deliver critical information and best practice to enhance the quality of their produce. By tracing produce from farm to fork, the Rural Sourcing Management solution also enables smallholder farmers to sell produce at market related prices, increasing their revenue and opening up new markets in the process.
A new digital agriculture think-tank is also leveraging SAP’s start-up initiatives on the continent – such as the MakeIT initiative in Nigeria conducted in partnership with GIZ – to develop new solutions for Africa’s agri-industry. The aim is to find niche solutions such as Hello Tractor, which functions as a sort of Uber for tractors by provisioning on-demand tractor services to smallholder farmers, or Ghana’s AgroCenta, a fair-trade initiative aimed at improving access to markets among the region’s smallholder farmers.
By equipping Africa’s smallholder farmers with productivity and quality -boosting technology tools, and ensuring they have access to market opportunities beyond their immediate environment, the continent’s agricultural sector can start delivering on its potential to feed the world. As the global population expands and food demand increases, Africa’s smallholder farmers are set to become key players in the global economy of the future.
IoT’s answer for Africa
IoT and digitization enables us to efficiently, proactively and predictively address the sustainability challenges that are faced globally and on the African continent, RESHAAD SHA, CEO of Liquid Telecom.
With Africa’s population set to increase from around 1.3-billion in 2018 to 1.7-billion in 2030, both challenges and opportunities are presented with regards managing issues including food production and security pose as well the utilization of limited natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Water scarcity and quality for example are realities that negatively impact health, food production and security. Population growth rates and climatic changes place an exponential demand on this scarce and dwindling resource. These are just some of the sustainability challenges facing not just the African continent, but other developing nations and the world as a whole. In addition to this, the demand for the delivery of basic services as healthcare and sanitation also increases.
Against this background of African population growth lies the grim projection that Africa will account for more than 50% of child deaths (under 5) by 2030, while each day, nearly 1000 children die owing to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases according to the UNICEF 2017 trends in child mortality report. It’s an alarming fact, given that while some 2.6-billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, 663-million people still do not have access.
The department of Water Affairs and Forestry estimate that the agricultural sector accounts for more than 50% of water use in South Africa and experience water losses of between 30 and 40 per cent. Further, the department states that around 35% of irrigation system losses, often nutrient enriched and containing herbicides, pesticides, and other pollutants, return to rivers. These are just some of the ways in which reactive, inefficient, and manually driven processes have limited us in responding in an impactful manner and timeously mitigating these risks
It is for these reasons and other socio economic and environmental concerns that the United Nations has established its Sustainable Development Goals strategy, addressing the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, and environmental degradation.
We need to look at smarter ways that leverage technology in order to addressing these challenges. The situation requires a radical response that delivers a proactive, predictive and data driven approach to addressing these issues with exponentially growing levels of speed and impact.
The IoT ecosystem, comprising of sensors, connectivity, data analytics and workflow automation platforms, and applications are at the core of acquiring, analyzing and harnessing the insights that can be integrated into agriculture, service delivery, health and resource management processer – IoT is at the core of a digitization
One such sector which has benefited immensely from technology is in agriculture pest control, with the implementation of AI and IoT by Spanish startup AgroPestAlert. The innovation makes use of “smart” traps that capture insects and analyse their wing beats to identify their species and even their sex. Placed throughout the fields, the traps communicate with the system to predict an imminent invasion. The system will send alerts to phones, tablets and computers and use an easy-to-understand visual tool to cue farmers instantly.
Around 200-million Africans use approximately 1-million manual pumps across the continent to manually access clean drinking water. IoT applications have been utilised in assuring the delivery of water through manual these pumps, According to estimates, at least one-third of those pumps will break down at least once in its lifecycle, and up to 70% will break in the second year of operation. The impact of not having access to clean drinking water is dehydration or water borne pandemics.
In the Kenyan Region of Kyusoa, Oxford University began a proof of concept project in 2013, which made use of motion sensors) to capture the movements of the pumps’ handle which was transmitted and analysed in real time. A decision support system based on real data was used to predict pump malfunctions, allowing for a better planning and shortening the time needed to repair broken pumps, or avoiding malfunctions altogether, directly improving the access to clean drinking water for the rural population.
Liquid Telecom realise that the future of sustainability lies in technology and innovations such as IoT. We provide high speed fiber connectivity to interconnect as well as access platforms to build IoT solutions, in addition to access to Microsoft Azure suite of platforms for analytics and algorithm driven based processing and execution. Our Pan African network enables collaboration and cross border innovation and learning, fast well as the capability to efficiently scale out these solutions on Africa’s Liquid Cloud.
Africa start-up ecosystem can drive blockchain
Through nurturing and technical support, Africa’s tech start-up ecosystem can be a major driver of Blockchain-based innovation says BEN ROBERTS, Liquid Telecom’s Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.
African communities have always come-up with inventive solutions to local problems. Take Somalia as an example. The country is said to have one of the largest diaspora populations in the world. It has few commercial banks and relations with international creditors remain frozen due to debts incurred in the late 1980s.
So its population uses Hawala; an informal value transfer system based on the performance and honour of a large network of money brokers. For example, it would mean a Somali based in the US would give money to a local branch agent, where it is sent to a central country clearing house, then onto a clearing house based in another country (typically somewhere in the Middle East). From there it goes to a Somali agent, before the funds are finally collected by an individual in Somalia.
Much like blockchain, the Hawala system is built on trust – but that’s where any similarities end. In fact, cryptocurrencies – many of which are blockchain-powered – may eventually become a replacement for Hawala and other existing forms of international remittances. Cryptocurrencies can enable people to exchange currency online without any middleman – even banks.
International remittance is one of many compelling use cases for blockchain. The technology’s ability to digitise trust makes it a unique fit for many African countries, particularly those where processes and supply chains remain poorly designed and susceptible to corruption.
At Liquid Telecom, we’re excited about the potential for blockchain technology across the region. Along with other emerging technologies, we recognise this as another major new digital opportunity for businesses that utilises our network infrastructure and services. The rise of blockchain innovation will rely on the skills and talent of the region’s software developers, who themselves rely on a high-speed internet connection and access to cloud-based tools. Our fibre footprint – which will soon stretch all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt – is providing the foundations for digital innovation, while our partnership with Microsoft is enabling access to the cloud-based services and tools needed to create digital solutions for local problems.
Last year, with support from Microsoft, we set-up our Go Cloud initiative, which is helping to provide the region’s start-up communities with technical support, training and access to software. Using Azure Cloud, start-ups can cut development time and experiment easily with modular, preconfigured networks and infrastructure, enabling them to iterate and validate blockchain scenarios quickly by using built-in connections to Azure.
We’re starting to see the first crop of African start-ups experimenting with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Take Rwandan start-up Uplus, which is utilising blockchain to secure all transactions on its digital crowdfunding platform. The technology also allows the platform to take contributions from any country and covert it to the local currency.
A lot of existing applications in Africa tend to fall short when it comes to user experience, and blockchain could certainly help address some of these issues – be it by creating a new trusted way to make payments or verify user identification. During this early stage of blockchain experimentation and proof of concept, it will be crucial for start-ups and businesses to develop solutions that are relevant for African communities. Without that, the technology won’t gather momentum.
Regulation can nurture or constrict the technology and will have a role to play in being a ‘make or break’ for blockchain. Living in Kenya, I’m proud to see how proactive the government has been in seizing the blockchain opportunity. The creation by the President of a taskforce earlier this year dedicated to blockchain – led by the former permanent secretary for Ministry of Information and Communications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo (see page 7) – shows how committed the country is to being a leader in emerging technologies. As more African countries follow Kenya’s lead, blockchain should hopefully find itself resonating more powerfully with local businesses and consumers.