Farming for the future

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For there to be advancement in farming, African farmers will have to embrace technology which will improve efficiencies.

By FRANCOIS VAN DYK

In a world obsessed with anything from the latest gossip on the Kardashians right through to Pokemon Go, it is very easy to forget the basics of human needs. Bread, vegetables, meat, sugar, milk, in fact whatever suits our taste, is something we get from the corner shop. We complain when prices rise, the kids refuse to eat their broccoli, we enjoy a nice steak now and again but it has become something we take for granted.

Agriculture is the single most important development in human history. For many thousands of years our ancestors were dependent on hunting animals and gathering fruits and vegetables. Small tribes of hunter-gatherers scoured the savannahs trekking after herds of animals or foraging for whatever edible foods they could get.

This all changed about 15 000 years ago when animals like pigs and sheep were first domesticated. The previously wandering tribes could spend much longer time periods in one place and soon they figured that seeds could be planted and crops like wheat, barley and peas were soon in abundant supply.

The first farms were born which eventually turned into towns where people could settle down and abandon their nomadic lifestyle. This led to a rapid advancement as it was easier to share ideas and form a unified culture, religion, science and art and belief system. Modern humanity as we know it was born.

Farming mostly stayed the same until the 20th century when technologies such as pesticides helped combat pests and many crops became genetically modified to make it stronger and more resistant to previous threats. As transport technologies also improved it became much easier to distribute products to new markets.

Now in the 21st century another major leap in agricultural technology is about to occur. And it is one that Africa needs to exploit to its fullest potential.

However, The Economist quoted some disturbing facts in a 2013 article. Africa has 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land – the majority not being utilized for farming. The areas being farmed further produces only 30-50 per cent of the crop of the global average and often the quality of the soil is poor.

Three major trends will need to drive the future of agriculture in Africa:

The rise of smartphones and apps

A lot has been said about the rise of mobile technology in Africa and some of the most innovative solutions in the world has come from Africans who need cost effective solutions to problems.

I-Cow, a Kenyan mobile solution which works with normal SMS’s has already transformed the way farming is done in the country and has more than 60,000 farmers active on the platform. It has evolved from a basic application for farmers to take care of their cows to a platform that now offers advice on all areas of agriculture from crops to soil conditions and more.

Safaricom and the Syngenta Foundation also created the Kilimo Salama app which disseminates information on climate data and ways to improve productivity. Vet Africa is another app which is popular in East Africa. It helps farmers to diagnose diseases and suitable medication for livestock.

New hardware technologies

It is not just the obvious hardware technologies such as more affordable smart phones that are changing the way that farming is being done. A big game changer in the new arsenal of the farmer is drones. Previously solely the domain of the military, drone technology has become very useful for many civilian purposes.

It now provides farmers with a relatively cheap solution to help them manage their crops. Planes and helicopters are expensive but drones can be purchased for less than USD1000 and can help farmers to easily identify irrigation problems, diseased areas and identify many opportunities for improved management of farms.

But African ambitions reach much higher still. The African Union created a space policy this year to encourage cooperation between its members on African space programmes. NigeriaSat-1 was launched in 2003 specifically to monitor agriculture and desertification. This early project by Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency, in cooperation with the UK’s Surrey Space Technology, will soon be followed by more ambitious projects.

Big data analytics

Smart phones, drones, satellites and the advent of the internet of things obviously creates masses of data previously non-existent. More than 90 per cent of data created in the world is not even analysed currently. Technologies and methodologies to interrogate this data for agricultural insights will greatly advance farming technology.

Though agriculture has been relatively slow in adopting big data analytics, big brands like John Deere now value data technology very highly and several Silicon Valley start-ups now purely focus on gathering and analysing data for farming as their main business. Some of the benefits that are being foreseen is battling disease outbreaks immediately, improving seeds and optimising crop yields.

Food entrepreneur Kimbal Musk, the brother of South African-born Elon Musk who founded Tesla and Space-X, recently predicted future food trends to Tech Insider. He believes there will be a move to more plant-based foods as meat becomes more expensive and unsustainable. There will also be a far bigger demand for locally produced fresh organic produce. As consumers become more educated they will also demand more facts about the content, nutritional value and origins of their food.

A United Nations food study in 2011 found that approximately a third of the world’s food production is wasted per year – this amounts to about 1.3billion tons. This is an alarming statistic if one considers there are still famines and food shortages experienced in many parts of the world.

African governments need to act quickly to harness technological advances and support their farmers to improve efficiencies. The reality is that without the humble farmer, there is no civilisation.

Email: francoisv@ornicogroup.co.za

Francois van Dyk heads up Operations at Ornico, the Pan-African Brand Intelligence research company. He studied and taught public relations before entering the world of media research.

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