Africa Has an 'Uber' Opportunity to Disrupt Farming Technology

(File photo).
27 July 2018
Malabo Montpellier Panel (Dakar)

Five years ago, Uber accelerated onto the scene in Africa, revolutionising the way we navigate cities. In 2017, Airbnb hosts in Africa made a tidy US$139 million renting shared rooms.

Catering to a large, untapped market at low prices by "sharing" a car or a home is the secret to success for these businesses. Investors are eager to spot the next opportunity for disruption at this scale. But it won't be in African cities. It will be in rural areas; in agriculture.

Africa's food and beverage market is projected to reach US$1 trillion by 2030. The arable land to grow this food, and the youthful population to work it, are in rural areas. What would happen if they could access the technologies they need to boost production, with uber-like ease?

We don't need to imagine it - the sharing economy is already burgeoning on African farms. Take the app Hello Tractor, for example, that connects tractor owners to farmers. While the equipment is loaned out, owners can monitor it using a device fitted to the tractor. This overcomes inefficiencies that until now made the business unsustainable. By using the Hello Tractor app, farmers can plant 40 times faster than by hand. As  with any other mechanized approach, increased productivity is driving improvements in food security and incomes. Hello tractor is now used by farmers in Nigeria and Kenya, with plans to scale up across the continent.

Opportunities to apply cutting-edge technology to African agriculture, which is still playing catch up with the rest of the world in terms of mechanization, don't just exist on the farm.

Before investing in equipment to process mangoes into juice, women farmers from a mango growing region in Kenya were earning just US$0.01 for four mangoes. After the introduction of multi-fruit processing machines, and training on post-harvest handling, they are now selling mango juice for $1 per litre. In Nigeria, solar-powered cold stations are now able to extend the freshness of perishable foods from two days to 21 days. This is reducing post-harvest losses in markets and farms by up to 80 per cent, increasing farmers' incomes by up to 25 percent.

The continent is abundant with opportunities like these. Furthermore, Africa is in the unique position of being able to "leapfrog" less efficient stages of mechanization, straight to the technologies that are transforming agriculture worldwide, from artificial intelligence, to drone technologies and robotics. As digital technology and alternative sources of energy become more accessible and affordable, the opportunities become greater.

According to a new report on the state of mechanization from the Malabo Montpellier Panel, seven African countries are leading the charge in Africa. Encouraging private sector investment has been one of the major ways Rwanda, one of the seven, has managed to mechanize over 33,000 hectares of land to date, despite the millions of otherwise unmechanizable hills across its landscape. Deliberate efforts by the government to create an enabling business environment have proven key for getting businesses on board.

Ensuring that mechanization is employment enhancing and not labour replacing is critical. To this end, making sure Africa's ever-expanding youth population is prepared and trained to get involved in this transformation is going to be key. We are seeing countries move in this direction. For example, Morocco, another of the seven leading countries according to the report, created 52 agricultural vocational training centres across the country to train up qualified technicians that can offer quality repair services to machinery. Investment in such a scheme will not only close a technical skills gap, but also offer an answer to rural unemployment.

Another option could be to reinvigorate generation-old technologies that were used in parts of Asia and China around 25 years ago, but never made it to Africa.  The walking tractor or power tiller are good examples of these, and would significantly increase labour productivity, build farmers' knowledge and capital while reducing post-harvest losses significantly. The challenge is, nobody makes them anymore. This would require Africa to reconstitute that knowledge and interest with help from Chinese businesses that still have the patents.

The other alternative - to catch up to the rest of the world - requires Uber-like technology where hundreds of farmers can work with the few people that have specialized skills and technology. This type of distruptive innovation is needed in order to have the level of impact Africa needs. Hello tractor and other such apps provide that opportunity.

Either way, if Africa does not seize this opportunity to mechanize its food system, when the demand, workforce and technology to make it happen are all available, it will continue to lag behind. The time is ripe for rural areas to see an uber transformation of their own.

Dr. Agnes Kalibata is President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and a member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel.

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