Preparing Africa's Agriculture for the Future

29 September 2020

Mandla Nkomo, Managing Director for Solidaridad in Southern Africa, posits that African Agriculture is poised for a new epoch, which will embody the current realities and demands on the continent. Addressing increasing global demand, local food security, and true sustainability for producers requires a radical new path: one that keeps an eye on global imperatives, while ensuring that local sustainability is also prioritized.

African Agriculture must refocus on sustainability at the local level for global impact

Understanding the past decades

At a continental level, the key drivers of this next chapter of African Agriculture will be the rapid population growth on the continent, the urbanization that will see Africa breech the 50% mark in terms of urbanization within a decade, the rapid economic growth that will spawn an ever-increasing number of middle-class consumers who in turn will inspire dietary changes. 

However, the elephant in the room will be the fact that Africa has not yet been able to demonstrate a model of how Agriculture moves people out of poverty. Consequently the agriculture sector, which provides livelihoods for the majority of Africans, over and above these drivers must be able to address endemic poverty in the African countryside, as well as urban poverty associated with those that have voted with their feet and trekked to sprawling urban centres. This crisis, that agriculture must respond to, is compounded by an equally huge challenge of climate change which finds most of African agriculture largely ill-prepared. The Climate Change pressure means that in responding to its agricultural system crisis, Africa must modernize its agriculture in a climate responsive manner.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has also pointed to a now irrevocable fact that the world is connected. Global food security will have a big impact on how African agriculture progresses into modernity. The challenge of feeding the 9bn by 2050 will require that Africa’s contribution to global food security increases. African farmers have experienced diminishing returns from traditional crops, which also have not provided food security or a pathway out of poverty.

If one looks at a scorecard of African agriculture in the last decade, it’s clear to see that transitioning to modernity will be a mammoth task!

It’s going to be about natural resource use efficiency

All of agriculture requires the use of often finite natural resources, such as soil, and water and most inputs into agriculture like fertilizers also rely on non-renewable minerals. The future of modern agriculture in Africa therefore will require a judicious and considered use of natural resources in order for the promise of a modern African agricultural sector. So the future of modern agriculture in Africa is going to be about natural resources, and their efficient and optimal use.

WATER

Although many statements and researchers indicate that Africa still has the most under-utilized fertile lands available for agriculture, and under-utilized water resources, it is equally true that land degradation and limited use of water saving techniques suggests that Africa might not be able to deliver on the promise it holds for the rest of the world. =

Agricultural productivity expansion in Africa will need to ensure that while farmers use rainfall for their row crops, irrigation capability, using efficient irrigation systems can be deployed. A water saving, modern African agriculture system will need to employ best in class technology on efficient water use.

Latest technologies from companies like N-Drip make it possible to deploy efficient irrigation without requiring expensive infrastructure like centrifugal pumps and filters. Sub-surface drip installations also make it possible for large scale use of drip in crops like maize and sugarcane where previously inefficient flood irrigation was in use.

SOIL HEALTH

Soil health must be a key issue in the Green Revolution

Several studies have been undertaken to properly map and classify Africa’s soils for suitability for agricultural production. This has moved the soil health management agenda forward somewhat. However, for a sustainable growth to be achieved in African Agriculture, there needs to be more tools available to allow farmers, including the small holder farmers to be able to monitor and manage soil health. 

Solidaridad, in partnership with AgroCares, has, for example, introduced digital soil testing that makes it possible for a farmer to get a soil test done within 24hours, provide accurate indications of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Organic Carbon, pH and electrical conductivity for less than USD$10 per sample. Making soil health monitoring possible, at a large scale at an affordable price will help modernize African agriculture on a sustainable path. The recent Indian Agriculture Today  had the cover title “ Eco Agriculture Revolution”  and profiled  Professor Rattan Lal ( World Food Prize Winner, 2020) who made an impassioned appeal that India must have a national soil protection policy. He further made the point that the next Green Revolution would need to be soil-centric, ecosystem oriented, knowledge driven, nutrient -focused, sustainability driven, and farmer centric. These points embody the centrality of soil management in the future of modern agriculture. (India must have a national soil protection policy, 2020)

BIODIVERSITY

The recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), (FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 2019) indicates that, globally, our dietary choices are limited to no more than 200 crops (out of over 6000 plant species cultivated for food), that are responsible for feeding almost 7,8 billion people across the world. Out of this number only 9, are responsible for 66% of total crop production.  

Dr. Howard-Jana Shapiro and the Africa Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) initiative works  on preserving the biological diversity of crops in Africa that could play an important role in providing cereal and vegetable requirements to a growing world population. They have identified 102 orphan African crops which have potential to support diets and incomes for African farmers. The FAO indicates that crops like sorghum/millet use between 450-650mm in a typical growing season, while maize (the popular staple) uses 500 – 800mm in a growing season. If grain crops like sorghum and millet are promoted, the world has a greater chance to meet our nutritional requirements. 

So, the future is about more diversity in food production and moving away from a single crop narrative, and promoting crops that have a more negative climate impact.

CIRCULARITY AND REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy refers to an economic system that builds and rebuilds system health, and supports waste and pollution elimination, product and materials utility and most importantly enhancing regenerative natural systems. The future of modern agriculture in Africa must see more circularity and deliberate adoption of regenerative agricultural practices. 

Currently inorganic fertilisers are promoted as opposed to the use of readily available manure and organic agricultural waste in improving soil health and fertility. In the livestock sector, limited focus has been given to holistic rangeland management which follows a biomimicry approach of hoof action on soils, deposition of manure and animal urine as part of improving degraded grasslands. Thriving grasslands are one of the world's biggest carbon sinks. This way African agriculture can avoid some of the environmental and ecological catastrophes that are playing themselves out in the developed world. 

Regenerative Agriculture, according to Regeneration International, refers to “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle”. Practices such as , aquaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, biochar, composting, holistic planned grazing, no-till, pasture cropping, perennial crops and silvopasture are included in practices that promote regenerative agriculture.(Why Regenerative Agriculture? - Regeneration International, 2020). This holds a lot of hope for Africa.

RENEWABLE ENERGY

As a continent, Africa experiences 2000KWh/m2 (Zabihi and Gouws, 2015)  of solar radiation. On average, Africa as a continent experience on average 300 full sunlight days, yet the penetration of solar energy is only at 0,7% of world solar installations (Detollenaere et al., 2019). In comparison, Europe produces 131.9 gigawatts in solar energy growing at over 14% per annum, only has 1000KWh/m2 of radiation (Annual Solar Irradiance, 2020). 

Non-fossil-based sources of energy hold a lot of promise for Africa, and its agriculture. It is fair to say these alternative energy sources have hardly been explored. Solidaridad, in partnership with Ugandan energy start up Mundulis has developed a prototype for TREES (Transforming Rural Energy Ecosystems Sustainably) which focuses on harvesting agricultural waste for energy purposes. With the slow pace of the installation of the electricity grid in many African countries, agriculture has a better chance by relying on these renewable sources of energy to power mechanization, irrigation and rural household energy use.

It’s going to be about crop-livestock integrated systems

Crops and livestock should work in tandem to build sustainability in the sector

A lot of focus on agricultural development has been on crop production systems. However, if we are to achieve balanced ecological outcomes we need to be rather building sustainable crop-livestock mixed systems and ensuring that they work in tandem. In Africa, where most of the livestock production is extensive, cattle and small stock play a big role in dealing with rangeland degradation and invasive plants. 

A South African foundation, ERS, has done amazing work in this regard in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in working with communities to produce free range beef, while restoring degraded landscapes. Solidaridad, through its Nambola programme is working on similar principles in Zambia’s Southern Province. Since we can’t wish livestock away as part of the agricultural system, we need to find ways of building sustainable livestock -crop production systems. Livestock also forms an important part of the rural livelihood assets and therefore, their successful integration into modern, ecologically sound agricultural systems is an important goal to achieve.

It’s going to be about leveraging technologies

Undoubtedly the last century has brought with it incredible technological advances, in the biological, physical and digital sciences spheres. Technologies like genetic modification, mobile telephony, nano technology and various other advances have created opportunities for foster genetic advancement, quicker exchange of information, precise delivery of nutrients. While all these advances have been great for agriculture, some have had a negative impact such as limiting biodiversity in agriculture and food. However, if we accept that technologies in and of themselves are neutral, then it must be possible to leverage these technologies for the good of modern agriculture.

WATER USE

Micro-irrigation technology has revolutionized agriculture, not only in water scarce countries that gave birth to the technology like Israel, but across the world. As indicated below, the uptake of the technologies has made sure that more land can be put under production. Within micro irrigation itself, advances such as low-pressure drip (N-Drip), and sub surface drip have made great advances in water efficiency and effective irrigation.

The use of satellite technology now makes it possible to use remote sensing to accurately measure soil moisture and therefore be able to provide efficient advisory services that support water conservation. Solidaridad is working with Dutch entity Vandersat to develop use cases for soil moisture monitoring in smallholder farming.

DIGITAL ENABLEMENT

Multiple digital technologies have transformed our ability to aggregate, disseminate and consume information. This creates huge possibilities for the future of modern agriculture, especially in Africa. As has been the case with mobile telephony, Africa has been able to jump some steps, and get to the front of the queue as first-time telephone users. The crossover impact of mobile telephony has been best demonstrated by the proliferation of mobile banking which has put millions of Africans, especially farmers into formal financial systems. For that reason, the future of modern agriculture in Africa will be determined on mobile devices. Advisory services, financial services, training, market services and certification services can all be delivered via mobile phones. Planners of Africa’s agricultural future will do well to have the utility of the mobile phone in mind as they plan.

MARKET CONNECTIONS

As margin pressure across many agricultural supply chains increases, the need to improve efficiency within these chains will become important in the future. For that reason, new technologies like blockchain will improve transparency within supply chain connections, and thereby increasing traceability, which will have an impact on potential cost structures across the chain. In the future agriculture will rely heavily on immutable information exchange about the movement of goods and services across the chain. In Africa where there is often a disproportionate concentration of value with middlemen and traders and not producers, blockchain technologies will come in handy in improving transparency and facilitating a better value distribution across the chain.

FINANCIAL DISTRIBUTION

Financial services typically rely on the ability to build financial risk profiles of their clients, and also distribution channels for funds that are secure and traceable. Digital technologies are now improving the ability of financial services providers to build credit profiles for smallholder farmers, facilitate access to funds using digital platforms, and distribute insurance products more efficiently than current channels. Therefore, the future of agriculture will see a more digitally enabled agrifinance ecosystem, which benefits from all the advantages of digital profiling and distribution.

SHARED ECONOMY

Uber and AirBnB have completely changed the way we imagine how assets like cars and homes are used. It is now an accepted view that access trumps ownership of high value assets like homes and cars. This model is applicable to agriculture where infrastructure like silos, processing facilities and even production facilities like high tech greenhouses can now be accessed on a pay as you use basis. This creates an investment case for holders of capital who can now build a business model wherever there is evidence of demand, and potential users don’t need to carry dead assets on their balance sheets. 

In the sphere of equipment such as tractors, harvesters, threshers, micro logistics can be facilitated via a shared use model. In Zimbabwe, startup company Mobility For Africa has launched the Hamba service of tricycle carriers that are battery powered and provide logistics to rural farmers and communities.

It’s going to be about Human Resources

A pipeline of talent is needed to secure the future of Agribusiness in Africa

In 2013, the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) met in Atlanta, Georgia under the theme, “People Feed the World”. At the heart of that message was that without building a pipeline of talent, food systems, and in particular agriculture will be in trouble. This even more of a challenge were most farmers are currently elderly folk. So, Africa’s agricultural modernization faces a crisis in the near future if we do not build a pipeline of talent for food producers on an urgent basis. The clichés about making agriculture cool or sexy, are now more than clichés but are an imperative. The advantage Africa has, compared to many continents is its relatively young population. So the demographic dividend could be exploited for the benefit of modernizing agriculture but only if there is deliberate action taken now to build talent pathways for young people’s entry into the various skills required for modern agriculture.

RAISING THE FLOOR AND NOT THE BAR

Recent studies by Wageningen University and the Living Income Lab have revealed that sadly, for the decades of agricultural participation by millions of smallholder farmers - there still is pervasive poverty associated with agriculture. This is more so in Africa where as much as 75% of food producers live in poverty. The only way to turn this around is by focusing on living income as opposed to yield increases and price increases that do not consider other parameters. It’s about raising the floor, as opposed to raising the bar.

INCREASING PARTICIPATION, NOT DECREASING

Sadly, the agricultural sector in Africa has not been an equal opportunity endeavor in that, while women participate in labour provision, their share of income is disproportionately low. Therefore, the future of African agriculture must open the doors wide open for women to participate in the sector fully, not just as labour but as creators of value, and sharers of value. This also will require deliberate action going beyond rhetoric and tokenism towards real action. Agriculture cannot afford to leave behind more than half of its population if it is to succeed.

ATTRACTING AND NOT DIVERSIFYING AWAY

Collaboration and inclusion are critical for a strong future

In parts of the world, there is active discrimination within the agriculture sector on the basis of race and ethnicity. African countries like South Africa, and Zimbabwe still have huge odds to overcome to deliver inclusive and equitable agriculture sectors. Therefore, we ought to be imaging a sector where anyone and everyone can play, only if they so wish. Food production is too important to be anything but a mass participation sport. 

It’s going to be about new connections—Glocality

For all the talk of sustainability nothing fundamental seems to be changing on the ground. Therefore, a radical new path must be charted, one that keeps an eye on global imperatives, while ensuring that local sustainability is also prioritized. On a global level, the agricultural sector will need to address inequalities by focusing on improving profitability of producers through improved access to global markets and forward integrations. At a local level, promoting healthy food production, promoting effective rural services, and supporting policies that promote stronger rural urban food systems. Therefore this “glocality” means that we have to find a balance between what is good for the global agricultural sector and what is good for local agriculture systems.

This article has been shortened from the original version, available on LinkedIn.

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