Of the 970 million hectares of land on the planet with potential for cultivation, 590 million are in Africa. Africa is the « last frontier » for agriculture technology and machinery. 70% of Africans rely on agricultural production for their livelihoods and the continent still spends $50Bn on imported agricultural products. The agricultural potential of the continent sounds obvious but many resourced enterprises still hit a wall in Africa. However, some private eco-systems are already redrawing African agriculture thanks to a renewed vision that conciliates the very local dynamics with the shaping continent trends.
Building holistic eco-systems that enable productive collaboration
Agriculture can be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity but it is also, necessarily, a location-based activity. It means that the know-hows and technologies need to be relevant and applicable to the local environments. In Africa, agriculture is the most important entrepreneurial activity, as it is predominant in 70% of African households. However, Investment in agriculture will not have multiplier effects across communities in Africa if they are not location and market-based. Emerging technologies must not only integrate indigenous knowledge to expand but must also adapt and adopt the market particularities.
At SOWIT, we provide adapted algorithms that enable us to transform remote-sensing imagery into information. Our technology is made to be adapted to the very specific place and market needs. We have learned that is it is impossible to bring any remote-sensing solution to the African farmer if the local intercropping systems or the family and tribe-based small scale farming structures are not understood. So our job is not to sell ready-made solutions, but rather to ensure collaboration and design relevant and effective solutions directly productive for farmers. This may seem simple, but the task of bringing together small-scale African farmers, multinational commercial agribusiness and soil conservation experts around one table is a challenge. This is not to mention the other stakeholders like government officials and tribe chiefs. Collaboration is the biggest challenge because the different groups do not necessarily share the same values or see eye-to-eye, yet they still need to combine their strengths to overcome the African food and farming challenges.
The only time I have seen this collaboration become productive was during the COP22 in Marrakech. I saw officials, tribe-chiefs, small-scale farming associations and agribusinesses discussing how they could design integrated solutions to face life-threatening dangers. But do we need to face a life-threatening challenge to act?
The Farmer’s House for Africa, launched during the COP22, is an example of such a healthy ecosystem. It is led by an African company to enrich smallholder African farmers thanks to worldwide productive collaboration. OCP, which is the world’s first exporter of phosphate based products, does not want to offer conventional solutions, but instead wants to create local solutions that are a result of an integrated ecosystem.
Gathering teachers, farmers, students, agribusinesses, researchers, start-ups, cooperatives & bankers all around the Farmer’s House table to make sure farmer productivity is not constrained by lack of appropriate technology; access to best practice knowledge, inputs or services. This initiative fulfilled a vision OCP initiated years ago.
Youth are already transforming the continent
Agricultural innovation has the potential to transform African agriculture, but only if robust structures are put in place to create and disseminate critical best practices and technologies. These structures need to integrate youth people, especially since they tend to see opportunity even in difficulty and have access to social networks that fasten the information dissemination. Sierra Leone University of Makeni embodies the effort to involve youth in agriculture revitalization and reinvention. The University opened in 2005 thanks to the funding of international foundations such as Saint Lawrence Foundation. It established many farming projects in livestock and horticulture to train the students about leading operational and profitable farming businesses. The lectures co-led by the University of Milan allows efficient technology transfer while the expertise of local professors enables fast adaptation and implementation.
Today, the University of Makeni students are leapfrogging towards geomatics and remote sensing to make sure Makeni farming systems are both sustainable and profitable.
Babban Gona, a Nigerian agricultural franchise I met during the COP22 has a youth membership of 47%. Babban Gona provides cost effective end-to-end training, input, credit and marketing to turn agriculture into an attractive and profitable activity for small holders. Relying on youth not only increases the productivity at a rapid rate and income but also plays a crucial role in a country where 80 million youths are projected to enter the job market in the next 20 years.
Private companies need to drive concrete local initiatives that are beyond Marketing
The decentralization of self short-term gain to focus on others’ interests and values must be an absolute prerequisite. Unfortunately, many companies still view African markets as private turfs, easy-going and undemanding. The economic equation has evolved with a growing continent but the method applied has not. I was surprised to discover that companies such as Bayer, Monsanto or BASF do not lead local research programs.
I would expect from Bayer CropScience Africa to do a lot more for the continent’s small-scale farmers than introduce smaller, more affordable pack sizes. I realize that it is complex but who will lead this research revolution if not a company that revolutionized chemistry?
Leading local research and partnering with international institutions is required to build real solutions across the value chain. The work achieved by Manobi, a Senegalese start-up, is significant. Manobi provides platforms that directly match the farmers’ needs, improving efficiency along the value chains. The work achieved within the Cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire allowed intensification, sustainability & return-on-investment thanks to a better connection to international markets. This approach is supported by strong R&D capabilities that include satellite remote sensing and agronomy.
Marketing is important but should not be the driving force, It is actually a set of tools that helps materializing the complexity of the market. Danone chose in South Africa to rely on local communities to renew its brand identity and rock the market. Danimal brand succeeded targeting the bottom of the pyramid thanks to a very innovative distribution scheme relying on Danimamas, Daniladies and Danipapas. Danone leveraged the indigenous expertise of the township emblematic representatives to pull a strategy that incorporates their everyday struggles.
A new African Innovation mindset is emerging thanks to adapted robust collaboration led by visionary companies, deep market understanding entailed by integration of actors and a renewed sense of observation fueled by indigenous know-how. Technology is not immune, it must take into account these emerging shaping trends.