[Column] Efayomi Carr: Africa's youth hold the key to the expansion of agritech across the continent
The Covid pandemic has focused global attention on the drastic need for food systems to change and become more efficient, cost-effective, and far-reaching. Longer term solutions such as land reform and policy change have come to the forefront but many are looking to agricultural technology (agritech) as a means of shaping this future. This has preempted a race to create new innovations and technologies in recent years.
Agricultural technology is extensive. Agritech can be as complex as an actual farm robot, using artificial intelligence and machine learning, to plant, water, and weed your grow beds. Or it can be as simple as a USSD code that lets a rural farmer access this week’s weather forecast and planting advice on a 15-year-old cell phone.
One result of this surge in innovation is that African agriculture is growing fast. According to a survey conducted by Microsoft, between 2016 and 2019, the sector grew by 44 percent year-on-year and the continent registered the highest number of agritech services in the developing world, reaching more than 33 million smallholder farmers to date
While there are a wide range of agritech innovations that can propel African farmers to profitability, only 23 percent of youth engaged in agriculture are using any form of agricultural technology—noting a lack of financing and training, according to a new 11-country survey by Heifer International.
A report released by the African Development Bank Group stated that Africa carries 65 percent of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land and an abundance of freshwater, yet in 2017, Africa spent US$ 64.5bn on importing food. To develop Africa’s agriculture industry further, the World Bank Group notes that modern agricultural methods can transform it “into a business-oriented and commercially viable sector that guarantees the continent’s food self-sufficiency and puts an end to food insecurity and malnutrition.”
By 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to a third of the world's young people, who will play a key part in feeding future generations. No region possesses this phenomenon – of having more young people in the future – than Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, according to the United Nations, young people under the age of 25 account for approximately 60 percent of Africa's population. Yet, they often view agriculture as inefficient, socially immobile, and technically uninteresting. Consequently, the average age of Africa’s farmers is 60 despite the median age being 19.
Youth engagement in agriculture is essential to recovering from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, both to rejuvenate the continent’s agri-food system and develop economic opportunities for young Africans.
Today, Across the continent, young African fintech entrepreneurs with foresight are developing creative, useful agritech tools and services for smallholder farmers, and riding a wave of increased investment in agritech that is flowing into the continent. Fintech start-ups are increasingly using various technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), open-source software, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, drones, and big data analytics. Many start-ups have developed solutions targeting various aspects of agriculture, including finance, supply chain, retailing, and even delivering information on crops and weeds. These solutions are accessible to farmers through front-end devices such as smartphones and tablets, or even SMS.
And some agritech start-ups in Africa are developing solutions that increase the productivity of farms. For example,
- Drones and satellite imagery are a breakthrough technology, helping farmers oversee crops, and manage farms. They capture photos of crops, soil, and weeds and use the data to provide insights to farmers. These technologies save time and energy, while directly leading to productivity improvements.
- Network sensors enable smart farm management by providing details of the crops, soil, equipment, or livestock.
- Embedded finance platforms are offering new financial services for farmers, covering credit, farm inputs, insurance, and market access through machine learning, remote sensing, and mobile technology.
This only bodes well for the continent’s agriculture industry and our food security. Having the most energetic and productive segment of the population focused on agriculture will only result in exponential improvements in the quality and quantity of output by African farmers. It’s time for
young people in Africa who are interested in entering the agriculture sector to know that finance and training options are available to help build businesses that can provide sustainable incomes and rewarding careers. It’s an exciting time to play a role in the rise of agritech in Africa.