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Ignite Partner: "Smart agriculture essential in addressing rising food insecurities"

By Yariv Cohen, Ignite Investments Partner. Published in The New Times

France, known for its exquisite baguettes and cheeses, the beautiful Eiffel, and romantic Paris, has a population of over 65 million people, adding up to 0.84 per cent of the global population. This number has been slowly but steadily rising, since the 1940’s, when the population amounted to just a little over 40 million.

Africa tells a slightly different story, With 1.2 billion people living across the continent. With a population growth rate of 2.7 per cent a year, France’s 65 million people are added to its count every two years. By 2050, Africa’s population is expected to double, reaching 2.5 billion people, which will amount to more than a quarter of the global population. By that time, two in every five children will be born in Africa, and the continent will be the youngest in the world, with over 1 billion children.

The growing population and their ever-declining age presents various challenges, with food security constituting a major issue. As more people require more food, the declining median age, that is already at 19.7, the youngest in the world, means that a smaller percentage of the population will be at a productive stage of their lives, hence fewer people will be working then mouths will need to be fed.

In terms of food security, local farming plays a key role. But although 70-80% of the local population of the working age are smallholder farmers, agriculture in the region is far from being sufficient, and the continent currently spends more than $35 billion on food imports per year.

Farming through the ages

Today, agriculture is by far the most important economic sector in the continent, providing work for over 2 thirds of the population, contributing between 30 to 60 percent of GDP, and about 30 percent of the value of exports in each country.

However, arable land and land under permanent crops occupy only about 6 percent of Africa’s total land area, and the sector is far from reaching its potential, as farmers depend on rain for irrigation, heat and moisture lead to major losses of crops, and fertilizer is a far away dream. In addition, Africa has the least mechanized agricultural system in the world, with African farmers having 10 times fewer mechanized tools per farm area than farmers in other developing regions.

With billions expected to join the working-age population in the coming decade, 45% of the world’s total surface area suitable for sustainable production, and only 2% percent of renewable water resources being used, Africa has abundant resources for a massive expansion of agricultural production.

According to McKinsey, Africa could produce two to three times more cereals and grains, which would add 20 percent more cereals and grains to the current output. Similar increases could be seen in the production of horticulture crops and livestock. Just imagine the vast effects that this amount of grains, cereals, and other crops would have on the future of food security in the continent.

The best use case for Smart Agriculture

The African agricultural industry is by all means facing low productivity that is hindering development in multiple areas, and is compounded by climate change, a lack of technical expertise and the vast urbanization rates. For impact on the needed scale, a massive transformation of the sector is direly needed, and while existing technologies like improved seeds and fertilizers will be critical in meeting this demand, Africa’s farmers will need new, innovative practices to increase yields and get their goods to market, both locally and internationally.

Agritech, SmartAG, and Precision Agriculture are already changing the practice around the world, and are reaching Africa, where they are needed the most. Across the continent, IoT, AI, Machine Learning, and sophisticated technologies such as temperature and moisture sensors, robots, smart sensors, and drones are being used to enhance productivity and profitability.

Solar irrigation pumps are replacing costly diesel generator pumps, drones are mapping the location, size and productivity of farms, allowing farmers to quickly spot problem areas and target them with the right amount of fertilizer or pesticides, and smart sensors use light to measure soil properties and determine when irrigation is needed.

The global Agtech market was worth $13.8bn in 2020, and is expected to reach $22bn by 2025. In Africa the sector is showing immense growth, and according to Digest Africa, 131 African-based Agritech startups have raised $62m since 2018, a rise from the mere $50,000 invested in 2015. Investments in the sector are expected to rise in 2021 due to Covid-19, and the focus of global investors in food security for the region.

To tap into the vast potential that the sector holds, local governments can help by establishing a regulatory environment, adopting national digital agriculture strategies, and endorsing high-quality, skilled-based digital education, with the young generations leading the way.

Smart Agritech is the way to reach food security across Africa, and will only be relevant when accompanied by government integration, policy changes, and global investment. There are many innovative ideas out there. Let’s make them count.

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