Editor’s Note: Lina Belmaachi is cofounder of The Seed Project, a non-profit think tank. The team spent time on-the-ground in Africa in order to do a diagnosis and identify pain points across the agricultural value chain before heading to worldwide innovation hubs to meet with start-ups and select the solutions best adapted to African specificities. Their goal is to contribute to the African agricultural progress towards a system with optimized resource allocation through technology. Here Belmaachi organizes 99 African Agrifood technologies.
There are seven billion people on the planet and more than one-quarter of them suffer from malnutrition, mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9 billion people and the number of under-nourished children to increase by 25 million. We are now facing one of the biggest challenges of this century – how can we feed all these mouths?
Innovative solutions need to be implemented and technology and information sharing can help produce enough food and correctly distribute it around the planet.
The African continent has huge potential with 60% of world’s non-cultivated arable lands but still spends $25 billion annually on food imports. Africa could play a major role and take on future food challenges, yet it needs to leapfrog the innovation gap with other continents to produce enough food for its own population and work toward becoming a food exporter.
Even though African farmers are attached to their traditions and quite reluctant to change, they are not immune to the technology revolution. Just like in the banking industry, where mobile money technologies have become pervasive regardless of the quasi-inexistent banking system, agriculture must follow suit.
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Coming back to the basics of agriculture, farmers essentially have four main access challenges:
- Financing & Insurance
- Resources (inputs, equipment, labour)
- Knowledge & know-how (business and agronomic)
- Market (logistics, commercialization, transformation)
A representative and non-exhaustive selection of these companies have been visualized in this African Agtech market map, into nine categories by AgFunder and The Seed Project.
Financial services are not intuitively linked to agriculture, but they have a crucial role to play for African farmers. Smallholder farmers are seen as high-risk profile clients, dependent on climate, and with no collateral. This, combined with the lack of credit and risk-scoring capabilities, turns loan and insurance application processes into real hurdles for farmers. Different types of financial solutions are thus arising, such as:
- Micro-banking, with Oradian (Nigeria)
- Micro-insurance, with Mobbisurance (South Africa)
- Transaction services, with M-Pesa (Kenya)
- Data analytics for risk scoring with Acre Africa (Kenya) and credit scoring with Farm Drive (Kenya)
Ag Biotech Inputs
Farmers are using inputs (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) that are environmental detractors and not suited for their lands given their underdeveloped agronomic knowledge. There is room for start-ups to use advances in biotechnology such as plant breeding, gene editing, biologicals or microbiome research in order to propose more sustainable and efficient input solutions.
Wanda Organic is a Kenyan start-up providing organic bio-fertilizers to small and medium-sized farmers in order to improve their soil health and yields. Clients can order products by sending a simple SMS with their phone. Another company, InteliSeed from South Africa, partnered with Syngenta to provide farmers with optimized seeds that can offer them an butter output and quality for their crops. They are focused on vegetables, oil, and legumes and are starting to look at new varieties.
Smallholder farmers are operating on just a few acres of land, yet represent 80% of the food production in Africa. They are dispersed, landlocked and limited in cash, thus making it extremely difficult to access inputs or equipment. Marketplaces and sharing platforms aim at giving farmers the production tools they need.
Esoko is an information and communication service for agricultural markets in Africa that recently launched Tulaa, a marketplace for inputs. It combines mobile technology and last mile agent networks to connect input suppliers, financial service providers, and commodity buyers to smallholder farmers.
Apart from inputs, access to natural resources (i.e. water and energy) is a prerequisite for farming activity. Efficient management solutions are necessary to limit costs and waste. SunCulture, a start-up in Kenya is proposing an innovative solution. Their AgroSolar Irrigation Kit is a solar-powered irrigation system – a solar water pumping technology and a high-efficiency drip irrigation, bundled with a “pay-as-you-grow” financing service launched in 2016.
With better agronomic practices and knowledge on value-add operations, farmers could obtain higher yields and better quality products. Yet the current farming system is based on traditional practices relayed from father to son. How can these isolated villagers have access and adopt best farming practices? This effort is commonly done by NGOs but a few other actors are also entering the field. For instance:
- Ojay Greene (Kenya) offers training, advisory services and market access for underserved smallholder farmers;
- ICT4Dev (Côte d’Ivoire) integrates ICT solutions for farmers’ problems through platform design, web management tools, mobile, SMS and voice;
- AgroSpaces (Cameroon) is a networking site connecting agricultural communities to share information and form valuable connections.
Farm Management Software, Sensing & IoT
As the saying goes, “what you measure, you optimize”. Farmers are operating in uncertain environments and are eager to obtain smart recommendations. UjuziKilimo is a Kenyan company that utilizes data science and machine learning to provide actionable agronomic insights to farmers. Data on soil and crops are obtained with sensors and farmers can get real-time information and advice by SMS. Sokopepe is another Kenyan startup offering market information and farm records management services through FARMIS, a farm management and diagnostic tool and SOKO+, a digital commodity trading and information system, linking small-scale farmers to end retailers and bulk purchasers of produce.
Farm Robotics, Mechanization & Equipment
Startups are working on automating many repetitive, tiring tasks in order for farmers to save time and energy. A good example is DroneScan, specially-designed drone attachments that can take inventory in food storage facilities and provide live feedback. The Institue for Grape and Wine Sciences is also working on a robot in South Africa for data gathering purposes on vineyards.
Nowadays, consumers are increasingly looking at the life of products from “farm to fork” — they want to know the story behind the product. This is a great challenge in Africa, where logistics can be very tricky. Some Agtech start-ups are laying the foundation for a leaner supply chain, including quality testing devices, sensors for products’ traceability and safety, and smart logistics. iProcure is the largest agricultural supply chain platform in rural Africa. In addition to complete procurement and last-mile distribution services, the Kenyan company provides business intelligence and data-driven stock management across the supply chains. AfriSoft is a technology and software solutions provider in South Africa that addresses challenges such as warehouse management, quality, traceability and production tracking.
In Africa, the food supply chain is highly dependent on middlemen that take advantage of smallholder farmers given their limited market connectivity. Margins are then split between all these intermediaries, to the detriment of farmers. Some companies thus enable farmers to sell their products online, reaching final customers and increasing their revenues. M-Farm is a Kenyan startup providing a platform to connect farmers directly to buyers and inform them of price trends to optimize planting and harvesting timing.
Novel Farming Systems
The decreasing percentage of arable lands along with increasing pressure of climate change calls for more sustainable processes to produce food with fewer resources. The most well-known alternative to current farming systems is indoor farming, by growing produce in high-tech greenhouses and automated vertical farms. This includes aquaponics and hydroponics along with production facilities for new living ingredients such as insects, and algae. Fresh Direct Nigeria brings fresh premium organic produce closer to market with their container farm technology. Using hydroponics and vertical farming within a shipping container, the company is able to grow directly in urban areas.
Using fly larvae fed on existing organic waste, AgriProtein from South Africa has developed and tested a new large-scale and sustainable source of natural protein.
Africa has the potential to turn into the breadbasket of the world, but the way is still long and arduous. Bright minds should keep looking for solutions fitted to the needs and adapted to the African context. As pointed out by Sudanese billionaire and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, “This is neither a good time for Afro-optimism nor for Afro-pessimism! Africa needs to move towards Afro-realism.”