• Clever crops

    AI and blockchain are among the many tools that can help farmers fight climate change

    Clever crops

    Increases in frequency, intensity and severity of droughts, floods and heatwaves; progressively weakening soil health; and decreased pollination are some of the impacts forecast in the 2022 Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change – and much of the damage is already under way.

    ‘Climate change is reducing crop yields and productivity,’ reads the report. ‘Agricultural productivity growth in Africa has been reduced by 34% since 1961 due to climate change, more than any other region. Maize and wheat yields decreased on average 5.8% and 2.3% respectively in sub-Saharan Africa due to climate change in the period 1974 to 2008. Farmers and pastoralists perceive the climate to have changed and over two-thirds of Africans perceive climate conditions for agricultural production have worsened over the past 10 years. Woody plant encroachment has reduced fodder availability.’

    With 62% of the continent’s population currently employed in the climate-sensitive agricultural sector, the shortening growing seasons and increasing water stress could spell disaster for populations already struggling to establish food security. The key to mitigating these effects, many experts believe, is precision agriculture technologies.

    ‘Soil moisture sensors, drones, GPS-guided tractors, satellite imagery and weather forecasting tools will become increasingly important for sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers to adapt to climate change,’ says Barbara Glover, programme officer of the AU Panel on Emerging Technologies. ‘These technologies can help farmers optimise their water and fertiliser use, which is especially crucial in regions prone to drought, and help farmers make informed decisions about when to plant and harvest crops. Additionally, sustainable land-management practices, such as conservation agriculture and agroforestry, can build soil health and resilience to climate change.’

    These same tools can also contribute to lessening agri-environmental impact, says Glover, by helping to reduce the use of chemicals and water, which can have significant environmental benefits. ‘Drones and GPS-enabled tractors can help farmers reduce fuel usage and minimise soil compaction. Sustainable land-management practices, such as agroforestry, can also sequester carbon and mitigate the impacts of climate change.’

    As AI and blockchain technologies continue to mature and use becomes more widespread, they, too, hold potential benefits for farmers.

    ‘The use of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology could play a significant role in the future of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa,’ says AgriSA CEO Christo van der Rheede. ‘However, it is important to ensure that the benefits of these technologies are accessible to all farmers, regardless of their income level or geographic location, and that the potential negative impacts, such as displacement of labour, are also addressed.’

    Blockchain technologies can track all kinds of agricultural information; increase the transparency of supply chains; and reduce issues related to illegal and unethical production. On the AI front, accessibility is the mandate of a new AI tool launched by the Southern African Agri Initiative (Saai) in February this year. Called Hi Saai, the WhatsApp-based platform uses billions of data points on the internet to develop a complex framework within which a complete answer to a set of farm-related questions is given within minutes. The technology is aimed at providing small- and medium-scale farmers with access to the best digital technology, in order to retain a competitive advantage in an industry that is increasingly being dominated by multinationals.

    Smart technology can help farmers optimise their water and fertiliser use, and guide them in terms of sustainable land-management practices

    ‘In future, farms will be managed with big data, robots, drones and satellites, IoT, blockchain technology, and especially AI,’ Theo de Jager, Saai’s executive chairperson, said at the launch. ‘As a network for family farming, it is Saai’s mission to bring this technology within reach of every farm family.’

    Hi Saai will be made available to every farmer in South Africa before it is rolled out elsewhere in Africa and worldwide.

    While not exactly ‘smart’ – in the sense that they need not be connected to IoT in order to reap benefits – solar irrigation pumps are another tool for improving the yields in the face of changing weather patterns.

    According to the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, irrigation has the potential to boost agricultural productivity by at least 50%, yet food production on the continent is almost entirely rain-fed. The area equipped for irrigation, currently slightly more than 13 million ha, makes up just 6% of the total cultivated area.

    In Niger, where agriculture accounts for nearly 40% of the country’s GDP and employs 81% of its population, the World Bank-funded Niger Solar Electricity Access project has enabled farmers to buy solar-powered irrigation pumps. Based on the success of this project, which has brought 800 solar pumps to Niger’s farms since 2017, a broader US$800 million solar-energy project has recently been given the green light.

    With mobile phone penetration continuing to grow in the region, this too represents an important channel to connect small-scale farmers, in particular, to essential information, resources and markets.

    A 2022 survey commissioned by Vodacom, with 200 participants across South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Egypt, found that close to half of participants were already using digital tools to reduce water use (41%) and improve soil health (42%). There was also clear evidence that farmers were willing to further invest in digital technology to help them combat issues such as climate change – almost all of the surveyed African farmers (94%) planned to invest more in digital tools in the next 12 months.

    Two of the most popular such services are the M-Kulima mobile platform in Tanzania, which connects smallholder farmers to information and resources via SMS and interactive voice response, and the DigiFarm platform in Kenya, which provides everything from basic farming advice to more advanced and mechanised support.

    One of the most underutilised yet potentially revolutionary technologies to protect farmers from climate change impacts is satellite imagery and remote sensing, says Van der Rheede. ‘This technology can connect farmers and provide them with real-time data on weather patterns, soil moisture levels and crop health, allowing them to make more informed decisions about planting, harvesting and irrigation.’

    This technology has been employed with success in cashew nut farming in several African countries; however, its application across other crops remains low.

    Of course, the barriers to uptake of beneficial new agritech tools are significant – cost; education; access to infrastructure such as electricity and internet connectivity; and a lack of supportive policy and regulatory frameworks are all challenges that will need to be overcome for widespread adoption to proceed, says Glover.

    ‘However, there are promising avenues for overcoming these barriers, such as the increasing availability of affordable smart technologies, such as mobile phone-based solutions, and partnerships between public and private sector actors to develop and distribute affordable technologies.’

    Van der Rheede agrees that public-private partnerships play a crucial role in easing the path for adoption. ‘Governments, NGOs and private companies can work together to develop and promote affordable and accessible agri-technologies, as well as provide training and support for farmers to use these technologies effectively.’

    Stephanie Midgley, a researcher and project manager in agriculture, food security and climate change at the University of Cape Town, provides an additional caveat… ‘Tech will only succeed if it is affordable and reduces input costs, addresses a problem and is proven to support rising productivity and ensure profitability. Where this is the case, uptake can be quite quick,’ she says. ‘As with any new and rapidly growing sector, “fly-by-nighters” can undermine progress, since in agriculture trust is so important and farmers cannot afford to make mistakes.

    ‘After-sales service and support is also essential. Agritech does not offer one-size-fits-all solutions, and must take into account local farming and socio-economic conditions.’

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images