Expert Eye

AgTech’s solution to the challenge of feeding Africa

Sebastian Wanjala, Head of Agribusiness at AECF explores the emerging relevance of technology in agricultural production

Written by: Sebastian Wanjala, | Head of Agribusiness at AECF

Technology is an important ingredient in agricultural production. Indeed, the agrarian revolution was founded on technology, precipitating a transformative process that led to unprecedented yield increases and prosperity.

Technology remains inseparable from agricultural production, processing, and consumer fulfilment processes. It is the basis on which agriculture predicts and responds to changes in consumer needs and climate change. For example, long term solutions to the current impact of climate change that affects Africa disproportionately, as well as other shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict will likely find solace in technology. Numerous studies prove that the only way to grow productivity sustainably is by enhancing the use of technology as much as possible, across food systems. This is critical in different value chains – from pre-production (involving inputs such as seeds and fertiliser) to production (in keeping livestock and growing crops), harvest and, eventually, the consumer’s table.

Unfortunately, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in the use of agricultural technology. Yet, it is also the region that bears one of the largest hunger burdens, which is expected to worsen in coming years considered the projected rise in population.

Opportunities exist to turn the tide and deploy agricultural technology to boost food production significantly and sustainably. First, is by using primary production technology in growing crops and processing produce, which mostly exists in the form of farm machinery combined with sustained use of improved crop varieties. In order to extract the most value from land, it is critical that all production activities are as precise as possible, which is where technology comes in. For instance, by applying appropriate technology, a farmer can predict yield potential and determine the specific amounts and exact types and blends of fertiliser to be applied in growing a given type of crop in any given piece of land, thus saving on cost of inputs, while increasing yields. Even beyond the farm after harvesting, during processing of the produce, technology helps enhance efficiency.

The second aspect is digital technology, whose most important contribution to food production is in enhancing efficiency across supply chains. For instance, tech-powered platforms can help match supply of produce with demand. Digital technology facilitates linking what a farmer in a particular area has produced and its quantity and quality, to possible markets, from which prices are determined.

Another way that technology can help enhance yields is by availing information to farmers and other actors in the various value chains to help boost their output. Information plays a key role in shaping how a market operates.

In recognition of this huge potential that agricultural technology has in boosting farmer yields, supporting livelihoods, and promoting rural prosperity, AECF, an Africa-focused development funder, has been providing catalytic funding to innovative solutions. These investments range from agro-processing facilities to fix supply chain inefficiency in rural areas and solar panels to power irrigation systems, to supporting seed companies to enhance quality for fast-maturing varieties that can be grown for two seasons in a year, thus providing better income from the same piece of land. Since 2009, we have invested over US$210 million in innovative solutions across the agricultural value chains.

Technology’s key advantage lies in agility and adaptability to the needs of different levels of production, post-production storage, processing and marketing. For smallholder farmers, agricultural technology can help unlock financing (by reducing the risk of crop failure, selecting new and appropriate varieties), providing information and extension services, reducing post-harvest losses among other applications. For large-scale farmers, advanced high-tech technologies, such as drones that use infra-red technologies to determine crop health, water stress or fertiliser requirements allows farmers to save valuable water resources and or quickly make essential farm management decisions that maximise yields and profit accurately and rapidly.

A major drawback to unlocking the potential of technology in the continent is cost, which impedes access, particularly for smallholder farmers. This is unlike large-scale farmers to whom technology is more accessible, and customisable, with scope to progressively evolve with their needs, the fragmented nature of smallholder farm holdings and the resultant dis-economies of scale limiting the use of efficiency-bringing technology. Improving technology access to smallholders who produce the bulk of food in the continent, could have significant impact for Africa’s food production.

The first step to unlocking smallholders’ access to agricultural technology is providing information. With typically limited and ineffective extension services, many smallholders are not aware about the opportunities available to them and do not consider them. When information is provided on what is available across the value chain, they can decide how to resolve the challenges that they face. Clear examples include use of market-available vaccines that reduce livestock and poultry mortality. 

Then there is the issue of cost of the technologies. Farmers must afford the technology to use it. Innovative ways of availing these solutions include bundling them with financial services to minimise the required upfront cost which limits many of them. Spreading the cost of acquiring technology over time lessens the burden. However, technology need not be expensive or complex. Certain technology, such as using cost effective hermetic bags for grain storage that can be used over extended seasons, have the potential to significantly reduce post-harvest handling. Another example is selecting appropriate solar-powered irrigation techniques along with no-cost soil and water management practices that significantly improve soil health and productivity. Commonly owned cold-chain facilities for example increase access to markets for horticulture farmers. 

Agricultural technology has potential to sustainably grow enough food to feed current and future populations. It just needs to be made more accessible to smallholder farmers.