• Fertile ground

    The continent is gearing up to become an agritech hub

    Fertile ground

    With a predicted value of US$1 trillion by 2030, Africa’s agribusiness sector looks set to become a global hub of agritech innovation – and has already seen rapid growth in e-agriculture solutions, according to research commissioned by Microsoft last year. ‘Between 2016 and 2019 the agritech sector grew by 44% year-on-year, and the continent has registered the highest number of agritech services in the developing world, reaching over 33 million smallholder farmers to date,’ according to the software company.

    AI, IoT, data processing, robotics, blockchain and hydroponics are just a few of the technologies being employed with increasing precision and versatility by ‘smart’ farmers, with applications such as robotic milking, harvesting robots, autonomous tractors, controlled environments, soil mapping, sensors that can track light, humidity and temperature, and more.

    Africa is home to 60% of the world’s arable land; the agricultural economy employs 52% of the continent’s labour force and typically accounts for 14% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Microsoft aims to provide farmers with agritech tools through its 4Africa initiative, and suggests that as the continent’s middle class rapidly grows, demand for fresh produce will increase, while the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement could boost intra-African trade by 49%. ‘Through increased investments in inputs, storage facilities and irrigation infrastructure, Africa is expected to increase its agricultural output by up to three times by 2030.’ Furthermore, it’s predicted that up to 200 million smallholders will be registered for agritech solutions by 2030.

    Another separate report by Disrupt Africa found the total investment secured by agritech companies in 2020 saw impressive growth despite the pandemic.

    ‘Aside from [supply chain e-solutions company] Twiga Foods and [agri-analytics provider] Aerobotics, there were also strong raises from Apollo Agriculture [an agritech company that helps small-scale farmers access markets and financing] and Tanzania’s [electronic marketplace] East Africa Fruits.

    Agritech has the potential to transform farming in sub-Saharan Africa and lift millions out of poverty – as well mitigate the effects of climate change

    ‘Kenya remains the dominant market, accounting for a quarter of funded start-ups and 59.5% of total investment. Its share is down on 2019, however, when it accounted for more than half of start-ups and 92.4% of total funds.’

    Agritech solutions promise greater sustainability, lower environmental impact, access to markets and finance, as well as higher yields on less land using fewer resources. Yet substantial challenges need to be overcome before these advantages can be realised at scale. The UN’s FAO identifies a lack of digital infrastructure (access to electricity and digital devices, reliable network coverage), which is out of reach of most rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa, as one inhibiting factor. Others are inadequate implementation of national digital agriculture strategies; low levels of digital literacy; inadequate research; and limited capacity development.

    Priaash Ramadeen, CEO and co-founder of start-up the Awareness Company, echoes the findings of the UN report.

    ‘There are some hard barriers, like connectivity and infrastructure. Farmers who want to embark on a digital and data journey need connectivity. Another barrier that we are observing, is that the agricultural community is not used to – or aware of – how to buy modern software, which we deliver as a service. The investment business case is clear, and an easier starting point is something we are constantly thinking about.’

    Based in Pretoria, the Awareness Company offers comprehensive digital, data and AI agricultural services – from farm security to real-time farm data, sensors for water and soil analysis, workforce monitoring and data analysis – under the banner Hydra Holistic Agriculture. ‘Reception to Hydra is overwhelmingly good. We believe that people and organisations want to use and work with data,’ says Ramadeen. ‘They are looking for different ways and approaches to what they have been doing, and once we demo Hydra, a multitude of ideas come through as to how to start a digital and data journey. This is across agri security as well as precision agriculture. Deployed across smallholder to large-scale farmers, we are currently receiving weekly inbound requests from farmers.’

    Ramadeen believes greater investment needs to happen across the agriculture value chain. ‘Data for agriculture is in the early stages. Farmers are keen but want to see it working and want to have alternative ways to start, fund and work with data. Connecting data between farmers and large companies working with agriculture business is a good way to help farmers, small and large, to start working with technology that provides value in the form of operational efficiency, as well as risk management, traceability and customer value.’

    Another barrier is that many new agri-technologies that do not yet enjoy widespread use can be perceived as high-risk.

    ‘The challenge with deploying new technology, particularly technology that must work effectively in a rugged environment, such as a farm, is that it must work reliably from day one,’ says Mark DeSantis, CEO of US-based Bloomfield Robotics and lecturer in AI at Carnegie Mellon University Africa, in Rwanda. ‘The potential for robotics and AI for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is the same as it is anywhere in the world, so long as it gets the job done and it is also affordable and, importantly, reliable. We’ve found farmers around the world have a lot in common, including being very pragmatic. If a tool makes that farmer more efficient today, they will use it. If it is unreliable, no matter the promise or potential, they will not.’

    Bloomfield Robotics offers an AI service that captures images of each plant, after which cloud-based deep machine learning measures key plant features in the images and generates an assessment that can be acted on by the farmer.

    It is DeSantis’ third start-up and, he says, something he’s seen over and over again is that it takes time for farmers to see the ultimate potential of these kinds of products. ‘I think very few people realised at the time the first iPhone was sold in 2007 how much that device would affect our lives. [Agritech] is the same way.’

    Access to capital is yet another important hindrance to the uptake of agritech solutions, according to Michelle Adelman, founder and MD of Accite Holdings, a project development and impact investment firm that focuses on technology-led, sustainable commercial agriculture projects.

    The firm has recently been focused on using controlled environment agriculture together with hydroponics to enable consistent, year-round horticulture and animal feed production while conserving water and minimising fertiliser use.

    Adelman says that in addition to growing high-quality, nutritious produce, these technologies have the power to enable distribution operations that bypass cold-chain infrastructure constraints and drive local employment. ‘For example, we have implemented a “hyper local” business model for Go Fresh! in Botswana, where we grow local produce for the local market using local labour.

    ‘We’ve created employment and more financial security for our growers – 80% of whom are women and heads of their household – but also completely eliminated the need for 1 000 km of cold-chain transport and layers of middlemen who take margin from the farmers and increase prices to the end customer.’

    She adds that there is a strong need for support to create proof-of-concept projects so that people can see and touch the technology in their own context and environment. ‘Sometimes these solutions seem so foreign and unachievable on paper – and we are still very much a “seeing is believing” culture.’

    Agritech tools such as the ones mentioned here have the potential to completely transform farming sub-Saharan Africa, mitigate the effects of climate change, lift more than 400 million people out of extreme poverty and improve the livelihood of approximately 250 million smallholder farmers and pastoralists in the region.

    It all depends on how these tools are leveraged, invested in and supported by digital policy implementation.

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images