Agriculture in Africa is the primary source of income for nearly 60% of the economically active population and plays a prominent role in ensuring food security not just within the continent, but also around the world. Recent advancements in both agronomy and agri-technology are empowering farmers across the continent to make efficient use of natural resources and agri-inputs, boost productivity and mitigate risks of crop failure, and, consequently, realise enhanced crop yields and quality. The adoption of digital technologies also increases transparency and efficiency along the supply chain, making it possible for producers to benefit from improved access to markets, both for intra-region and international trade. What are some of the recent trends in agriculture in Africa? How can this sector be made more inclusive and profitable for all demographic groups? How is technology adding value farmers, traders, and other agri-stakeholders? Continue reading to get your answers about agriculture in Africa from our conversation with the thought leader for the day.
In Conversation With
, the Country Head for TechnoServe
’s operations for Kenya, is what one would call an agri-expert with a passion for agriculture and particularly for cropping and horticulture. Having grown up in a rural area where his parents farmed, he expresses that he has always been interested in plants and livestock, especially those with economic use. He finds the link between food, nutrition, and how well people can fulfill their potential compelling, and food does start with agriculture. This led him to pursue a rewarding career in agriculture, starting with a degree in Agriculture and majoring in horticulture. He now has a rich experience of 20 years working in agricultural extension in public and private sectors, and nearly 15 years of experience in a managerial capacity in production. More recently, he has been a development practitioner for close to 12 years. John loves seeing farmers doing things well, especially implementing innovative practices that improve their systems. In recent years, he has seen significant increases in productivity in the North Rift region with farmers using conservation tillage. However, this continues to be a work in progress and will take longer to make this the most common practice in the region, as it involves investment in equipment and availability of service providers with the right equipment, along with continued growth in demand for the services.
Conservation agriculture (CA) is an approach that is gaining popularity in sub-Saharan Africa’s smallholder farms to tackle issues pertaining to land degradation and soil fertility. Could you tell us a little more about this approach? What is the impact of CA on crop yields and livelihoods?
John Logan: CA is slowly gaining traction in East Africa, more so on larger farms. It has gained more ground in central and southern Africa. The benefits are many, and to start with soil structure, reduced compaction leads to deeper rooting systems and better drainage, both of which are very important during periods of drought and heavy rain. More trash (mulch) on the surface reduces soil erosion and improves the percolation of rain, again increasing the amount of soil moisture available to the crops. Crop rotations reduce disease and pests while also changing the nutrient profile being extracted. Some crops contribute organic matter to the soils and may fix atmospheric nitrogen. Both these improve the availability of soil nutrients to the plants, while organic matter also improves soil structure and water holding capacity. Perhaps the biggest effect is on crop yields and profit, as established CA systems use much less power for land preparation, while yields are much more consistent and higher. For the staple crop in Africa, maize, CA has the ability to improve yields by 25% in good years, while in poor years conventional tillage may result in total failure.
What would be some of the effective strategies for the public and private sectors to close/reduce the gender gap between men and women in agriculture, and make agriculture a lucrative choice of livelihood for the youth?
John Logan: This is a big question! Inheritance of and access to land is predominantly in favour of men, and while some governments have legislated in favour of equality, in this respect, it will only come about through generational change. Greater equality in access to finance would also help, and here guarantees from governments could help bring this about. In the case of youth, these problems come with the addition of the perception of risk in terms of finance. This needs to be addressed with guarantees. They also need access to land, even if small areas, if they are to enter primary production. The advantage youth have is education and connectedness to others and to markets.
Kenya is recognised as the innovation hub of Africa with nearly 30% of the continent’s start-ups operating in the country. What have been some of the most promising innovations in the agri sector in recent times and what challenges do they help overcome?
John Logan: Mobile money, while universal, has certainly helped farmers tremendously. Even if this is just in paying school fees without having to travel to the school. In addition, there are many ways the inputs can be bought remotely, either through specific platforms or through text messaging and delivery by motorcycles. More sophisticated platforms can keep records as well as provide short P&L information. To mention one, Digi-cow will provide reports on milk production for each animal as well as profitability, and will also track health issues and give exception reports. There are many similar platforms for crops. All these platforms are most valuable for traders, exporters, or processors as they help provide data about the production, which helps in planning.
For producers of export crops, traceability to source is emerging as the key to access new markets and fetch premium prices for their products. Is there any incident that you could share with us where traceability and the regulation of working conditions have improved the income for farmers?
John Logan: You can say that in some cases traceability is needed to maintain old markets as well, as greater regulation is introduced for food safety. There is a medium-sized company in Kenya, which is exporting dried food ingredients to the USA. These products are fully traceable and are replacing undocumented suppliers from other countries. In this case, the market is paying a premium for products with known provenance and is actively phasing out other suppliers. Certification is now almost universal for export markets and in all cases, these systems track GAP as well as the legality of working conditions. Even at a co-operative level, contracts and minimum wages are a prerequisite for certification, while environmental issues are often also monitored.
Close to 30 countries across Africa, Middle East, and Asia are facing a severe threat from locust infestation. Although pesticides are now widely used to fight these outbreaks, the adverse effects of these chemicals on the environment and human health do not make them an ideal solution. How do you think emerging technological solutions can help farmers take some preemptive measures to prevent excessive crop damage?
John Logan: In Kenya, there is very good monitoring of locusts and prediction of movement and breeding etc., with a supercomputer dedicated to this. While pesticides are required to reduce the numbers, such information allows for spraying to be effective and limited to where the swarms are. This technology reduces the risk of exposure to pesticides by people, livestock, and crops.
How can smallholder farmers be protected from the adverse effects of market price volatility, particularly those who produce high-value crops such as coffee and cocoa?
John Logan: Market volatility is best managed by traders, who are able to hedge or insure against falls in prices for goods they have bought. In turn, they are able to pay farmers guaranteed prices with a contract. In order for the contracts to work, there has to be trust between the trader and the farmers. One example I can give is coffee farmers in Rwanda, contracted to an exporter. The exporter advances funds to the co-operative to buy cherry from the farmers and to pay at a certain price point. Daily SMS reports allow the trading company to know how much coffee has been bought and wet-processed, and at what price. They will then hedge that volume at that price, so even if the world price drops before the coffee is at the end market, the price is protected. This is good for the trader while the farmers know what price they will get on a daily basis. Should prices rise before final marketing, then the trader has the ability to share this increase with the farmers. This is less easy with perishable products, but contract growing and set prices help, and information systems help ensure that the processor or exporter is able to secure the volumes they need for their business to be successful.