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Prosper on Farms irrigation systems
Image credit: Prosper on Farms

Africa’s smallholder farmers need access to irrigation technologies before 4IR agtech solutions can take off

August 14, 2023

Prosper Chikomo is founder and chief empowerment officer at Prosper on Farms, a Zimbabwe-based startup specializing in irrigation systems.

The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AgFunderNews.

Africa imports 100 million tons of cereals worth more than $75 billion annually. This presents a huge opportunity for local African food production, food independence, and food self-sufficiency.

But hi-tech solutions such as genetically engineered seeds, controlled environment agriculture, cultivated meat and fourth industrial revolution technologies are not practical solutions to solving hunger at scale in Africa and lifting Africans out of poverty right now.

The cart must come before the horse, and we have to build a solid foundation for African agriculture first for everything else to take off. That means investing in the basics such as irrigation and storage. But some investors would rather fund meat grown in a lab.

“With distributed smallholder irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation kits and solar-powered pumps, and improved post-harvest storage, Africa could feed itself, decrease poverty, improve health, and increase prosperity.”

Why does Africa import so much food?

The low irrigation penetration, unpredictable rainfall patterns in Africa, and massive post-harvest losses of food, despite an abundance of water resources, are why Africa is a net importer of food.

Africa primarily imports staple grains such as wheat, maize (corn), and rice, which are mostly grown under irrigation in exporting countries such as the US, Ukraine, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia.

Africa has plenty of water, but according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, only 6% of its farmland is under irrigation, compared to almost 40% in Asia, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, water withdrawals as a share of total renewable water resources are only 1%.

Attempts at leapfrogging African agriculture through irrigation development at scale failed in the past because they focused on large-scale farms, while smallholder farmers, who according to the FAO produce over 80% of the food consumed in Africa, were left to rely on rain for irrigation.

According to the World Food Program, farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa experience post-harvest losses of up to 30%. Higher irrigation penetration and improved post-harvest solutions can increase food availability as well as farmer incomes.

With distributed smallholder irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation kits and solar-powered pumps, and improved post-harvest storage, Africa could feed itself, decrease poverty, improve health, and increase prosperity.

Africa has the highest solar irradiance in the world, which means solar-powered irrigation and storage have great potential.

Farmers need access to irrigation technologies

Looking at historical data, I found that each time that the rains were good in Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi), those countries would produce enough grain to feed themselves and even have a surplus to export. Each time that there was a drought, those countries would import grain and appeal for food aid, with millions of people facing hunger and starvation.

Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi have a ban on growing GMOs, so evidently when rains were good they could feed themselves without growing GM maize.

The point is that these countries, with the little they have, and without sophisticated machinery, high-tech solutions, and complex proprietary genetically-engineered technologies, are able to feed themselves when the rains are good. Their only need is access to basic irrigation technologies, not AI, IoT, ML, blockchain and GMO.

First invest in the basics…

Over 90% of the farmland in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi is not under mechanized irrigation. Most of the farmers are subsistence smallholders who grow mostly the staple food crop, maize, and other grain crops in the single rainy season of the year.

In Zimbabwe, the lack of smallholder irrigation means that the national average yield for maize is 0.7 tons per hectare (12 bushels per acre), worth only $180 (maize takes 90 to 180 days to mature depending on variety), whereas farmers who have irrigation systems achieve yields of as much as 20 tons per hectare with the same seeds and fertilizers, which is 29 times more!

In Malawi it is the same story. One subsistence farmer who used to harvest only two bags of maize annually saw her income increase by 30 times under mechanized irrigation. Given that over 60% of the African workforce works in agriculture, this is how Africa can feed itself and lift itself out of poverty.

How can an African agtech startup in drones, AI, IoT, remote crop monitoring, agtech subscription services, blockchain, or smartphones thrive in Africa if farmers do not have irrigation and post-harvest technologies to guarantee them higher, regular, and somewhat predictable disposable incomes?

Recently, the Government of Zimbabwe struck a deal with John Deere to sell tractors in Zimbabwe on very favorable terms. But even if the average farmer gets a government-guaranteed loan to buy a tractor, if those crops do not get water, it’s impossible for the farmer to repay that loan from farming with that tractor.

The countries also have insufficient storage capacity for grains which leads to post-harvest losses, lost income, and lower prices when rains are good, and hunger when there is a drought. Without grain imports, Zimbabwe’s strategic grain reserves of 500 000 metric tons can only feed its 16 million people for 2 months.

‘Investors were funding anything with high-tech acronyms’

Throughout 2021 and 2022, while I was looking for funding for irrigation development and could not get any, I read AgFunderNews with shock and horror as CEA startups, agtech ioT startups, CRISPR-enabled biotech startups and cultivated meat startups were raising as much as $200 million apiece. Investors were funding anything with high-tech acronyms.

How can investors put $35 million in a container-based farming startup that has no viable business model, while Africans face food insecurity for lack of investment in irrigation? Irrigated African agriculture already has viable tried-and-tested business models as shown by Africa’s domestic production and exports of cocoa, flowers, and tobacco.

In my view, funding irrigation development– let’s call it ‘climate-proofing agriculture’ – in Africa may not be sexy, but it may have a better return on investment than container-based agriculture and lab-grown meats.

Africa has 60% of the world’s arable land, but lacks access to irrigation. With irrigation, Africa’s food production for local consumption could be much much more.

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