The promise of technology to boost African yields

Opinion

 
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A highly impactful FAO report, titled How to Feed the World in 2050, predicted that the human population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. In order to feed this number, the total aggregate of global food production will need to grow by 70%, from about its current 10%. For Africa, which is modelled to hit a human population of about 2 billion people by 2050, agricultural productivity must advance at a faster rate than the world average. If not, mass poverty and hunger will cause serious crises among African communities.

Executing this redesign of improved farm yield will be done in a time of severe climate change, which is already causing dislocation in agricultural practices, and resulting in productivity loss and human suffering. In Nigeria, for example, Fulani herdsmen, are threatened by loss of pasture in the Savannah region in the north of the country and are moving their cattle to the south, leading to conflict and violence with the farmers already based there. In Somalia, the Shebelle River, which supports many farmers is drying up, causing additional problems for the war-torn country. Lake Chad has also lost its energy and vigour to anchor the lives of many citizens as it dries up.

As Africa’s population grows and farm productivity continues to dwindle due to weather changes, shorter fallow periods and unprecedented rural-urban migration, the trajectory to feed billions looks dim. Soils are overused for crop farming and lands are overgrazed for animal farming, leading to unsustainability for rural production in most African communities.

More so, whilst most advanced nations employ less than 5% of the working population in agriculture and still produce for export, Africa employs about 65% of its working population in farming, and yet cannot produce enough food to feed its people. Less than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the US comes from agriculture; in comparison, agriculture accounts for 30% of Africa’s GDP. Simply put, the future of Africa is still tethered to agriculture because it remains the most critical sector in most economies.

Opportunities for technology

Yet, there is something working for Africa in light of these challenges: information and communication technologies (ICTs). ICTs are facilitating the process of socio-economic development in Africa by offering new means of cheap and efficient information exchange and business transaction, among other opportunities. Increasingly, ICTs are rapidly moving some African economies, like Rwanda and Kenya, towards knowledge-based economic structures and informed societies, comprising networks of individuals, companies and states that are electronically linked in interdependent global relationships.

The remarkable success of ICTs on the continent posits a promise for agriculture if effectively harnessed. Indeed, Africa’s agriculture can be transformed and technology has the capability to improve farm productivity and drive efficiencies by facilitating measured approaches in the sector, such as precision agriculture. For example, the more precise application of fertilisers will help to reduce input waste and improve overall farm yields.

The test for Africa is that it needs to develop and deepen capabilities to solve region-specific climate changes so as to replenish its soils and have the right inputs to farm, and feed its people. Today’s depleted soils are opportunities for technology companies to solve. Possibly, a quantum computer powered by the most advanced general artificial intelligence can offer roadmaps on how Africa can effectively feed not just its citizens, but the world, since it has the largest area of uncultivated arable land.

I created Zenvus with this mindset – that we can engineer farming solutions for the future by bringing a fusion of electronics, data science and data, to provide assured food security in Africa. Zenvus is an intelligent solution for farms which uses proprietary electronic sensors to collect soil data like moisture, temperature, nutrients, pH, etc. It then sends the data to a cloud server via GSM, satellite or Wifi. Algorithms in the server analyse the data and advise farmers on farming processes. As the crops grow, the system deploys special cameras to build crop vegetative health indices for detection of drought stress, pest and diseases. Our system has the capability to tell a farmer what, how, and when to farm by correlating the states of the soil with the growth phases of crops. This closed loop architecture provides insights to farmers, to add fertilisers and irrigate, etc., for optimal yields.