Editor’s Note: This article was featured in Ventures Africa magazine February/March edition

Agriculture in Africa currently stands at the crossroads of persistent food shortages compounded by climate change threats. Communities in several African countries are battling food security, as many are not producing enough crops and grain to feed themselves, let alone to sell as surplus. Analysts believe that the effects of unemployment and the resulting increased crime rates can be halted by innovative agricultural solutions that include commercialising crop and livestock production.

The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, written by Calestous Juma, examines these topics. The book suggests that Africa currently faces three major opportunities that can transform agriculture on the continent into a force for economic growth. These are: advances in science and technology; the creation of regional markets; and the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement. Furthermore, the book asserts that Africa is quite capable of feeding itself.

In South Africa, Nedbank is promoting and rewarding agricultural best practice and innovation. The bank has invested around R8.3 million (approximately $1 million) in conservation group WWF South Africa’s Sustainable Agriculture Programme, an initiative that tackles food security challenges and protects natural resources through sustainable and innovative measures. “If our country [South Africa] is going to overcome the significant environmental, social and economic challenges involved in feeding our population at this time, it is the responsibility of every one of us to start thinking and acting more sustainably right now,” said John Hudson, a Nedbank Agriculture official.

In Kenya, the recently established Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC) is expected to revitalise and boost home-grown green technologies throughout the East African region. The KCIC, set up by the World Bank Group’s infoDev Climate Technology Programme, offers support to climate-focused technology ventures in order to boost agricultural productivity and agro-processing.

Robert Van Wyk, a South African agricultural research expert, said: “Farmers today are operating in an increasingly uncertain environment in which climate change is affecting future planning and productivity. The KCIC will help farmers cope with climate change and give them relevant information useful to their planning. It will also equip them with technology and knowhow to counter the effects of climate change.”

Jonathan Coony, coordinator for the infoDev Climate Technology Programme, said companies supported by the KCIC will have access to funding, business advice, market research and facilities for the design and development of products. This is expected to help give the companies, including those in farming and other agricultural support sectors, opportunities to make themselves more attractive to investors. Other climate innovation centres have been planned for Ethiopia and South Africa.

In rural Zimbabwe, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has implemented an electronic voucher (e-voucher) system to help cash strapped  small-scale farmers access agricultural inputs. Inputs can be loosely defined as those goods put into a system or expended in an operation to achieve an output. In agriculture, inputs include water, fertilisers, pesticides, fuel and equipment, to name but a few.

Ngoni Masoka, the Permanent Secretary in the Zimbabwean Ministry of Agriculture, says: “The use of the vouchers will ensure that rural agro-dealers are revitalised and will lead to an improved organisation of the markets, which will benefit farmers as they access inputs close to their areas.”

The e-voucher system is designed to improve the food security situation among vulnerable households through crop and livestock production. It is also hoped that the programme will resuscitate the fragile rural agricultural input supply chain in Zimbabwe, through the re-engagement of markets, the provision of subsidised inputs, and farmers’ timely access to their required inputs. Inputs already accessible through the system include a variety of seeds, fertilisers, lime, agrochemicals and implements, as well as spare parts for farming equipment.

Development-focused entrepreneurs and organisations are looking beyond just the accessing of inputs and equipment. Martin Fisher is the co-founder and CEO of KickStart, a non-profit organisation specialising in irrigation technology targeted at improving crop productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. KickStart sells portable pumps, such as the MoneyMaker Hip Pump and the Super MoneyMaker Pump, costing between $35 and $95, to smallholding farmers in Mali, Tanzania and Kenya.

Numerous farmers in Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia have already started using the lowcost pumps for irrigation purposes. Fisher says his organisation sells the pumps instead of giving them away because this promotes entrepreneurship instead of dependence, and ensures that the people who really want the pumps get them.

Further north, in Nigeria, mobile phone technology is proving invaluable to innovation and development. Here, mobile technology is being put to excellent use though an initiative called the ‘Growth Enhancement Support Scheme’. Through this, farmers receive fertiliser and seed support through their mobile phones, or ‘electronic wallets’.

Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is optimistic that this development will see Nigeria’s agricultural sector become tech-friendly and will work towards decreasing the challenges farmers face because of delays in accessing critical information.

Nigeria is the first country in Africa to reach farmers by such means. According to Akinwumi Adesina, Nigerian Minister of Agriculture, by 2013 Nigeria aims to have distributed 10 million mobile phones to farmers across the country, making it easier for them to gain access to inputs.

Mobile phones are also assisting farmers in Kenya, by bringing market-related produce prices to their attention. The Kenyan Agricultural Commodities Exchange has partnered with mobile operator, Safaricom, in launching SokoniSMS64, a text messaging platform that provides pricing information to farmers. M-Farm offers a similar service.

Mobile app, iCow, billed as “the world’s first mobile phone cow calendar,” allows dairy farmers to track the gestation periods and progress of their cows. It makes use of SMS and voice services to do so.

Weather apps such as FarmSupport, accessed through the Internet and mobile phones, are helping farmers across the continent by providing up-to-date weather forecasting. The app also collects crowd-sourced information from farmers on which crops they planted where, and their yields, as well as the types and amounts of fertiliser used. The crowd-source feature uses a modified Geo-Wiki, promoting two-way communication between data providers and farmers. This data is then collated by researchers and could lead to the development of more accurate early warning systems for food security and to better estimates of the current yield gaps in Africa.

Innovation in agriculture will indeed go a long way to boosting productivity, creating employment and bettering food  security on the continent. Agricultural research scientists need to establish stronger linkages and share ideas and expertise to better tackle challenges impeding the growth of Africa’s agricultural sector. After all, who better to solve African problems than Africans themselves?

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