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Addressing the Massive Gap in Africa’s Agricultural Sector

Improperly irrigated land has led to low income and food insecurity.

Mukande Qwe, 31, lives with her husband and three children in a small hut in Kabunjwiri, rural Rwanda. The family has a small farm, where they grow beans and maize. Like all the other farmers in her village, she uses a diesel-operated pump to water her crops. “It is the only option we have,” she says while standing outside her home with her youngest son. “This pump is very heavy, and the diesel is expensive, but we can not rely on the rains alone.”

Today, agriculture is the most important economic sector on the continent, providing work for over two-thirds of the population, contributing between 30 to 60 percent of GDP and about 30 percent of the value of exports in each country. Yet, only 5% of arable lands are irrigated, encompassing the massive gap between the continent’s needs and its current abilities.

In her words, Mukande depicts the troubling reality of Africa’s agriculture sector, where climate change and overall inefficiency are threatening the food security of hundreds of billions.

Growing population, growing needs

1.37 billion people live in Africa. With a population growth rate of 2.7 percent a year, 65 million people are added to its count every two years. By 2050, the continent’s population is expected to double, and 2.5 billion people will amount to more than a quarter of the global population. By that time, two in every five children will be born in Africa, and the continent will be the youngest in the world, with over 1 billion children.
The growing population and their ever-declining age present challenges, including job availability, disease control, and water access, yet food security might be the most imminent risk of them all. Africa’s median age, 19.7, is the youngest globally and is on a constant decline. By 2050, a smaller percentage of the population will be at a productive stage of their lives, and fewer people will be working, then mouths will need to be fed.

Today, agriculture is the most important economic sector on the continent, providing work for over two-thirds of the population, contributing between 30 to 60 percent of GDP and about 30 percent of the value of exports in each country.

Food security is already at a crucial stage across the continent. According to a UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, the number of hungry Africans has risen by 47.9 million since 2014. It now stands at 250.3 million, or nearly one-fifth of the population. COVID-19 is expected to make things worse, and tens of millions were already added to the list since the pandemic began. But hunger is not the only issue of food insecurity. Across the continent, millions of people suffer from widespread micronutrient deficiencies, with overweight and obesity emerging as significant health concerns in many countries.

The report shows that the food system in Africa does not provide food at a cost that makes nutritious food affordable to a majority of the population. With 490 million people in Africa living in extreme poverty conditions, vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins are simply not affordable. The lack of access to nutritious food is reflected in the high disease burden associated with maternal and child malnutrition, high body mass, micronutrient deficiencies, and dietary risk factors. Current food consumption patterns impose high health and environmental costs.

A sector that employs over two-thirds of the continent’s population must, by all means, provide them with better food and nutrition systems. Renewable energy and technology present the best, most affordable answers.

Solar Panel and Workers

African-based Agritech startups have raised $62m since 2018, a massive rise from the mere $50,000 invested in 2015.

Where technology is not only “nice to have”

Compounded by climate change, a lack of technical expertise, and the vast urbanization rates, Africa’s agriculture is in dire need of an overhaul. Existing technologies such as improved seeds and fertilizers will be critical in meeting growing demands. Still, local farmers need new, innovative practices to increase yields and get their goods to market for impact on a significant scale.

Mukande depicts the troubling reality of Africa’s agriculture sector, where climate change and overall inefficiency are threatening the food security of hundreds of billions.

Agritech, SmartAG, and Precision Agriculture are already changing the practice worldwide and are slowly reaching Africa, where they are needed the most. Across the continent, IoT, AI, Machine Learning, and sophisticated technologies such as temperature and moisture sensors, robots, smart sensors, and drones are being used to enhance productivity and profitability. Mobile digital devices are increasingly used across local farms. Smartphones, digital cameras, and navigation devices allow Africa’s farmers to access and share critical information. These devices can be connected to remote sensing data devices (including sensors and drones ) that alert farmers on forthcoming climate and weather conditions such as droughts and floods.
Drones are mapping the location, size, and productivity of farms, allowing farmers to quickly spot problem areas and target them with the right amount of fertilizer or pesticides. Smart sensors use light to measure soil properties and determine when irrigation is needed.

A sector that employs over two-thirds of the continent’s population must, by all means, provide them with better food and nutrition systems. Renewable energy and technology present the best, most affordable answers.

Utilizing sunlight, the continent’s most abundant resource, solar irrigation pumps are replacing costly diesel generator pumps, increasing yields and crops by up to 3 times, and prolonging harvesting seasons by 150%. Solar irrigation solutions tackle a dual challenge, as they both provide proper irrigation while addressing the issue of sustainable operation, which is harmed by the use of diesel pumps.

Woman and Child in AfricaAccording to Research and Markets, the global Agritech market was valued at US$17.4 billion in 2019, projected to reach US$41 billion by 2027, a 12.1% CAGR. In Africa, the sector is showing immense growth as well. According to Digest Africa, 131 African-based Agritech startups have raised $62m since 2018, a massive rise from the mere $50,000 invested in 2015. Investments in the sector are already rising due to Covid-19, while global investors focus on food security for the region.

To tap into the vast potential that the sector holds and provide a better, more secure future for billions, local governments must establish a regulatory environment and adopt national digital agriculture strategies. Endorsing high-quality, skilled-based digital education will establish the young generations’ presence in the sector and lead to an inclusive food system across the continent.

Hundreds of millions of Africans are in need of global investment, innovative technologies, and a change in mindsets. The sooner the better.

Yariv Cohen is co-founder and CEO of Ignite Power, a company providing distributed energy solutions across Africa. He is a founding partner of Ignite Investments, scaling innovation globally to help build Africa and the Middle East’s sustainable future.

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