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Opinion: Environment, Market Access

Science-Based, Smarter Farming for Africa

Ishmael Sunga Ishmael Sunga

As part of Farming First’s agroecology in action series, Ishmael Sunga, CEO of SACAU writes about the importance of using data to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture

African farmers, the majority of whom are smallholders, face myriad challenges.

These challenges are related to the entire cycle of farming, from pre-investment and production to post-production and marketing. They result in low volumes, low productivity, low quality products, and high post-harvest losses. Typically, farmers operate in a high-risk-low-return environment.

Agricultural systems across the world are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic. We are more aware than ever of the interactions between agriculture and our environment.

As such, farming has become more information and knowledge intensive, science-based and data-driven. African farmers, most at risk due to rising temperatures, rising population growth and rising hunger, need more than most to access information and technology that can help them overcome these challenges.  

Is it possible for African farmers, already faced with low yields and high risks, to balance increased production with protecting the environment? The answer is yes. There are several elements to this. The adoption of good agricultural practices is a good starting point, to enable farmers to do more with less or with the same.

A technician at CIMMYT in Zimbabwe demonstrates drone use for monitoring plant health. Credit: Liz Sharma / Marchmont Communications

There is no doubt that the adoption of scientific innovations can play a role in this. Improved seeds and animal breeds lessen agriculture’s burden on the environment, by reducing the amount of water a crop needs, or improving the amount of milk a cow can produce, for example. Keeping crops and animals healthy with products that can fight disease are also critical, provided they are used in a responsible way that does not harm the agroecosystem, but works to enhance it long-term.

Increasing the level of awareness, understanding and appreciation of farmers, consumers and society in general, on the impact that the current production models have on the environment, is also important. However, there is a need to incentivise farmers to invest in the long-term sustainability of their farms. Technical and financial support is needed to support farmers to undertake the necessary investments that will be needed in migrating to more responsible production systems, that support agroecological outcomes such as improved soil health, effective recycling of waste, and improved resource efficiency.

The Power of ICT for African Agriculture

Agriculture has become more complex and continues to change. In order to effectively respond to this, there is need to harness the power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as a platform for wide scale dissemination of information and knowledge to farmers in a timely and regular way.

This calls for investment in backbone “public good” ICT infrastructure and rural energy, which will enable connectivity, without which the African farmer remains socially, geographically and economically isolated. Connectivity will also facilitate the use of smart handheld digital devices that can be deployed for scientific measuring and testing to enhance production and marketing.

Pocket-sized sensors that detect the amount of nitrogen a plant requires, for example are now being used on African farms. The data collected helps farmers make better decisions on precisely how much fertilizer to apply, to reduce loss into the environment. Known as “precision agriculture”, this high-tech approach will go a long way to helping farmers put good agricultural practices into action,  and move closer to farming systems that improve the health of the overall agroecosystem.

Boosting Mechanization for Smarter Farming

The recently published 2018 report on mechanisation by The Malabo Montpellier Panel, titled “Mechanized”, provides recommendations for African policymakers on steps to transform Africa’s agricultural value chains. The importance of government investment in supportive infrastructure in areas such as irrigation, transport and electricity are highlighted, in order to allow African farmers to utilise new machines and technologies that will both enable market access and help African farmers make smarter use of natural resources.

Innovations such as solar-powered driers for fresh fruit and vegetables, or solar powered cold stations, for example, will allow farmers to slash the amount of energy needed to produce food. Pedal pumps that facilitate water supply to farms are also not dependent on fossil fuels and draw a relatively small amount of water from wells and lakes. A study conducted in Magoma, Tanzania, revealed that with the use of the pedal pump, farmers were able to double their yield.

Farmers can do more with the current resources at their disposal, if equipped with the right scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is the basis we must draw from to make African farming both productive and sustainable.

Featured photo credit: Liz Sharma / Marchmont Communications

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