[Column] Dr. Nicolas Lohr: Why mechanization makes business sense to African farmers
As global population burgeons to unprecedented levels resulting in growing demand for food, farmers continue to grapple with increasing productivity even as arable land dwindles.
With changing weather patterns that have altered farming and harvesting seasons, the situation is becoming even more complicated.
Yet, the issue, it is argued, is really not the lack of farming land per se but utilization of available land and embracing technologies that can create even more space for farming. In Sub Saharan Africa for example, a region grappling with food shortages, the total land area is estimated at 2.4 billion hectares, with a paltry 173 million hectares under agriculture.
The rest of the land exists in arid and semi-arid areas where farmers argue that the terrain and the climate is not favourable for farming.
As a result, the region leads in dependence on food imports which the World Bank estimates at $50 billion each year. Yet the world of opportunities that abound by opening up what is hitherto believed to be uncultivable land is immense and transformative.
A body of research has pointed to the fact that one of the easiest and plausible ways of increasing farm production per hectare is to mechanize.
Embracing land mechanization breathes new life into the food production by redefining the entire agri system from land preparation, fertilizer application, weeding, crop harvesting and storage while addressing the endemic question of food scarcity.
A World Bank report Growing Africa: Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness, that posits that the continent has potential to create a trillion dollar food market by 2030 makes a strong case for investment in mechanization and irrigation to reach that mark. And rightly so.
From tractors, plows, combine harvesters and irrigation equipment among others, use of farm machineries has over time resulted in land optimization, precision in farming which tames the cost of production and translating into guaranteed high yields.
Food and Agriculture Organization is of the opinion that Africa remains the region where agricultural productivity has stagnated since 1960s with average cereal production standing at 1.5 tonnes per hectare compared to the global 3.6.
Labour, a key component in food production is greatly streamlined through mechanization which ensures that the quantum of workforce required in producing a unit of output is greatly reduced. The savings from this expense can go into managing other vital aspects of food production like expansion or marketing.
Experiences from countries like India, Brazil and China point to the pivotal role agricultural machinery has played in graduating these countries from subsistence farming into commercial food producers, expanding area under cultivation and reducing dependence on imports as more farmers find business sense in investing in machines that simplifies and fastens land preparation, actual farming, weeding and even harvesting.
While in some instances individual farmers haven’t managed to acquire these machineries, combined efforts and cooperatives have come in handy, allowing them to share or sometimes lease. Eventually and as a result of increased production, the farmers have gained financial muscles to buy their own machinery. This cycle is hailed for the growth of commercial farmers in these countries.
As African food producers look to sate the ballooning food demand and produce the surplus for export, the farming systems will be under pressure to produce more with less labour.
And as more farmers look to bolster agricultural productivity and upscale farming activities, producing food in large scale now calls for resource friendly techniques that guarantee improved yields at low cost of production. Mechanized agriculture continues to demonstrate business and economic sense to this end, a key lesson African farmers should adopt.