Almost everything was put on hold last year as nations struggled to cope with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Agriculture was no exception—deep recessions revived fears of widespread hunger as progress in farming faced steep setbacks. The crisis is nowhere near over, but with a global vaccine rollout underway many optimists are starting to see glimmers of that long-waited-for light at the end of the tunnel. Some are musing what 2021 and forthcoming years will deliver in terms of new agricultural innovations in support of smallholder farms, including those hit hardest by the pandemic.
The folks at Lagos, Nigeria-based Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Ltd now count themselves as among the optimistic. Analysts there just released a new report highlighting the developments, trends, and technologies they believe are destined to deliver the most promising advances in developing-nation agriculture in the months and years to come. Their focus is on the African continent, but Grow Further thinks Sahel Consulting’s unique insights in the “Critical Trends in Agriculture and Food in Africa for the Next Decade” report shed light on what’s in store for smallholder farm innovation worldwide. Their predictions see a forthcoming tech-driven, ground-up revolution. As operations lead Rahmat Eyinfunjowo declares in the report’s forward, “From the growing number of agri-tech startups to the dramatic increases in the penetration of mobile technology across the continent, reliance on big data, and the growing demand for equality and inclusion at all levels, it is evident that the continent is at a tipping point.” Their vision is expansive. Below is an overview of three of the major trends they say we should all be paying attention to in 2021.
Precision agriculture—Farmers routinely walk their fields to check for potential threats like pests or diseases, but there is only so much ground their eyes and feet can cover. Too often these threats have the upper hand. Technological innovation is now helping smallholder farmers to tip the scales in their favor. “With field sensor systems on farmers’ phones, farmers can now capture visual observations of crop growth, diseases, pests, weeds, and other anomalies while taking a walk on their farms,” the report notes. And the benefits go beyond more precise observations. The same tech can help farmers pinpoint application of irrigation, pest control methods, and nutrients plant by plant to head off problems before they fester. Precision farming startup companies are mobilizing to help, sometimes with the aid of aerial drones. Examples include Nigeria’s Zenvus, which helps farmers collect data on soil conditions to determine where and how fertilizers are best applied to maximize productivity. Barriers remain. Sahel Consulting’s trends report warns that a broader uptake of precision agriculture is held back by high technology costs, bad mobile phone connections, and inadequate or non-existent internet service. But they see enormous potential. “With precision farming, each farmer will feed 265 people on a land that once fed only 26”.
Protective foods—In the quest for food security food quantity is important; but quality matters greatly as well. Hence the burgeoning “protective foods” movement emerging to address a lack of nutritional and dietary diversity in regions where farming is dominated by quasi-monoculture staples. The report notes the importance of promoting “nutrient-dense” and immune-system-boosting foods like fruits, nuts, and a wider variety of vegetables in the face of COVID-19. Authors cite efforts by Rwanda’s Africa Improved Foods (AIF) initiative, which seeks not only to spread the cultivation of more nutritious and varied produce, but also to develop food products from a variety of crops that can enable better health outcomes for the population. Sahel Consulting urges better coordination between the private sector and governments to help enable an effective protective foods movement, which may require campaigns to change the hearts and minds of consumers in Africa and beyond. “Sensitization and advocacy are essential to penetrate people’s mindsets and facilitate a positive behavior change towards increasing demand, production, distribution, and consumption of healthy, nutrient-dense foods”.
Big data—These days a much-overused buzzword in the West, “big data” evokes images of supercomputers and vast data center arrays processing billions of data points in a matter of seconds to research and model everything from climate change to consumer shopping behaviors and even the evolution of the universe. But can it really help smallholder farms in Africa, Asia, or elsewhere? Sahel Consulting insists it can and urges stakeholders, innovators, and scientists to think big. Big data’s “use in the African agricultural sector is currently underexploited and limited to adopting smart agricultural practices such as the use of drones to identify fertile lands and precision irrigation systems for conserving water resources,” their report says. “A lot more can be done, especially over the next decade.” One example that inspires them is a company in Ghana that’s leveraging big data to help farmers cut pesticide use by 50%, and a cloud-based digital mobile technology called Farmforce helping food exporters keep up with developments at the East African farms they buy food from. Barriers include data, infrastructure, and the necessity of training an undereducated population on how to make use of these technologies and applications. But with internet use gaining rapidly across Africa there are major gains to be had by those who discover the right formula, the report argues. “Despite the obstacles that the deploying process may face, the opportunity it presents far outweighs that”.
In order to leverage these trends, Grow Further is currently recruiting a consultant with expertise in IT in agriculture as well as traditional agronomic disciplines to expand our project pipeline. Stay tuned for more details.