Dossier

Agricultural mechanisation

Agricultural mechanisation is essential for transforming Africa’s agricultural productivity. Whilst motorised equipment can be expensive to buy and costly to maintain, some interesting new initiatives are providing innovative strategies for farmers to access machinery instrumental in boosting production.

Mechanisation has the potential to increase agricultural production, reduce labour requirements and make more efficient use of inputs © dbimages/Alamy Stock Photo
Mechanisation has the potential to increase agricultural production, reduce labour requirements and make more efficient use of inputs © dbimages/Alamy Stock Photo

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A genuine agricultural revolution is clearly needed to enable African communities to feed themselves and help feed the world via increased production and productivity, and reduced losses, while urging more youths to take up farming. Agricultural mechanisation is now on the agenda of both public and private stakeholders and offers a key to success.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the least mechanised agricultural system on the planet – the World Bank reported that there are only 2.24 tractors per 100 km2 of arable land in Mali, compared to 1,300 in Europe. Only 5% of all arable land in Africa (excluding Egypt and Mauritius) is irrigated, whereas the average rate in countries like Brazil, China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam is 38%. 

Just buying agricultural machinery would seem to be a straightforward solution, but this strategy was attempted in the past and failed. Stories abound on brand new tractors being left unused under vegetation at the back of fields or under layers of dust in barns. 

Mechanisation strategies 

There is current consensus on the fact that smallholders must form organised groups to not only facilitate access to farm machinery, but also to optimise and maintain it, because tractors may be operational for 5-30 years depending on how well they are maintained.  

As a prime example in Africa, agricultural equipment cooperatives have been running smoothly for 20 years now in Benin and this model is being emulated elsewhere (see the Interview with Theo de Jager), but in highly varied settings. In Bacaad, Somalia, individual farmers have formed an effective cooperative, which is presently 115 members strong. In April 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross supplied it and 15 other cooperatives with tractors, while also offering training programmes on agricultural management, and data collection. Elsewhere, through the Agriculture Development and Value Chain Enhancement Project, the Zambian government delivered 31 tractors in 31 chiefdoms between 2015 and 2016, particularly to women farmers’ cooperatives, including the Tigwilizane Women Club in Zambia’s Eastern Province. 

Individual mechanisation initiatives, also based on the sharing economy concept, are increasing in number. Yet cooperatives are not a cure-all. In Nigeria, for example, the Hello Tractor technology start-up sells smart two-wheel tractors equipped with GPS and a telematics system which are hired out to individual farmers. Farmers requiring a tractor send a text message request to Hello Tractor, which in turn transmits the message to a smart tractor owner located in the vicinity of the requesting farmer, who eventually makes a mobile phone payment once the work is done. The tractor owner – through the GPS and telematics system – is always aware of the location of the tractor and whether it needs maintenance or repairs. This system also enables data collection on the farm location and size, and planting and harvesting times. These data, combined with other information on weather conditions and soil type, could help enhance the system so as to better meet farmers’ specific needs in the future. These easy-to-use 15 horsepower tractors cost €3,700. In 2016, Hello Tractor had already sold 1,000 tractors in Nigeria. The Hello Tractor formula works so well that last year it managed to raise €2.8 million, including €950,000 from the United States Agency for International Development, to provide 24,500 smallholder farmers with access to its services. 

In India, the start-up Trringo proposes an Uber-type service whereby a small-scale independent farmer can hire a tractor with a driver. A farmer can place a call or use Trringo’s mobile app which will put them in touch with a tractor owner offering the service. At the end of the job – like Uber clients – the hiree farmer can appraise the tractor owner. 

Rent to Own is an NGO that was founded in Zambia in 2010 to lease equipment packaged with various services (financial, training, and delivery). The equipment – including pumps, presses, tractors, shellers, and even bicycles – also acts as form of collateral to help stop farmers spiralling into debt. By early 2016, the company had over 1,800 clients, 25% of whom were women (and this ratio is increasing), and had delivered over 2,000 machines and parts to farmers in eight districts, in three different provinces (1,300 of which were purchased). 

WeFarmUp – an Airbnb style agricultural equipment platform which is due to be launched in West Africa in 2018 – enables farmers to share their equipment. “By sharing equipment, someone who has purchased a piece of equipment can make it profitable by renting to other farmers who thus avoid falling into debt,” says the cofounder Jean-Paul Hébrard. The platform was launched in France in 2015 and had 3,700 registered farmers and 2,500 machines for rent in the first year.  

Farm equipment manufacturers are also not short of initiatives to help individual farmers. In February 2016, at the 10th Biennial US-Africa Business Summit in Addis Ababa, the AGCO equipment manufacturer discussed offering its Massey Ferguson Farm Mechanisation Package to farmers wishing to mechanise. This package included an MF 300 tractor and accessories, along with training sessions organised in partnership with the NGO Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture. This agricultural package is focused on boosting the cost-effectiveness and attractiveness of agricultural activities for young people. Italian, French and Polish companies, such as URSUS who are working in Ethiopia, are also attempting to increase their market share in Africa.  

South-South cooperation 

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS countries) are not only seen as a source of investment and technology, but also as examples to be followed. Brazil, China and India, in particular, offer individual farmers and cooperatives a combined package of assistance, trade and investment.  

After the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, Beijing pledged to help Africa boost its agricultural mechanisation. Amongst other initiatives, China launched the Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre concept, which has four functions: agrotechnological research, extension, training and the promotion of Chinese farming equipment. There are now 23 centres across Africa which are managed by public and private Chinese companies.  

Meanwhile, the agricultural situation in Brazil, which combines large agricultural estates with many small-scale farmers, has prompted Brasilia to consider offering its solutions for application in Africa, says Lidia Cabral, an economist at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. As part of its More Food International cooperation programme launched in 2010, Brazil has developed an export credit facility to grant concessional loans for the purchase of machinery manufactured in Brazil, accompanied by technical cooperation and advice on setting up a suitable legal framework. In Ghana, for instance, the Agricultural Mechanisation Service Enterprise Centre programme offers rentals of tractors and other equipment. Another major Brazilian initiative, the Programa Mais Alimento África, proposes credit lines to help small-scale farmers gain access to tools and machinery. In February 2017, Senegal received over 800 new equipped tractors, and the delivery of an additional 520 is pending. 

Brazil, China and India are also building agricultural machinery plants (Tata, Mahindra, Sonalika, Angelique), while Tata Motors has developed tractor leasing operations in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Chinese companies are also very involved in Africa, particularly the agriculture and construction machinery manufacturer, the YTO Group Corporation. In August 2009, YTO and the China-African Development Fund founded the China-Africa Machinery Corp. in which YTO exports agricultural machinery and invests in assembly plants and service centres, particularly in Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. 

Developed countries at the starting blocks 

In addition to BRICS countries, developed countries have increasingly become mobilised in recent years. In 2016, as part of the American Feed the Future initiative, the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium was jointly launched by four universities in the United States, two in Asia and two in Africa, in conjunction with technical partners such as the American NGO Tillers International and CIRAD, the French agricultural research and international cooperation organisation. This 4-year project aims to develop locally tailored small-scale agricultural mechanisation, especially in collaboration with women farmers.  

In 2015, FAO signed a partnership with the European Committee of Associations of Manufacturers of Agricultural Machinery to promote sustainable agricultural mechanisation in Africa through a public-private partnership. This partnership was broadened in December 2016 to include the African Conservation Tillage Network, AfricaRice, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and the World Bank at a consultative meeting in Nairobi on a mechanisation strategy. The aim was to develop regional pilot projects on mechanisation underpinned by public-private and private-private partnerships. One of the main conclusions of the meeting stressed that agricultural mechanisation needs to be adapted to local conditions, because no one recipe exists for the differing ecological conditions in which African farmers operate. It was also deemed to be crucial that agricultural mechanisation is environmentally compatible, economically viable and that, in the view of the changing climate, it is climate-smart. Participants agreed that FAO, in collaboration with partners, would develop a concept note to advance sustainable mechanisation in Africa that will be tabled at the high-level meeting of the African Union Commission for endorsement in 2017. 

Agricultural mechanisation in Africa now, more than ever before, needs to be approached pragmatically. Private business solutions must be combined with government policies, while targeting both individual farmers and cooperatives, and draw on the most advanced technologies so as to tailor machinery to the specific needs of every small-scale farmer. 

Bénédicte Châtel

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The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.