Harvesting Innovation: The Changing Face of African Agriculture

Africa is in the midst of an agricultural revolution, with innovation driving new avenues for increased crop yields, better resource and capital operating efficiencies, and general farm management knowledge. Africa is home to almost 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, or about 60% of  the world’s total. This contrasts the fact that 1/3rd of sub-Saharan Africans are undernourished, with population expected to grow to 1.2 billion people by 2050. The cleantech world is driving the changing scope of African agriculture with an influx of new companies offering innovative solutions which will alleviate stresses to the current system and support farmers.

global uncultivated caption

Both local and international startups are addressing some of the most basic challenges of agricultural production in Africa. 20%, or 4 billion dollars of grain harvest, is lost every year and 35-50% of fruit and vegetables spoil from crop and storage pests. UK based companies Plant Health Care and Exosect are targeting this inefficiency with pilot projects in Africa using their proprietary crop protection technologies. Plant Health Care provides natural pesticides which leaves no residual impact on the environment and helps to activate certain defensive and growth responses. Exosect also makes bio-control pesticides that can be applied to traditional farming practices and has developed electro-static and pheromone disrupting technologies for grain and other produce storage.

Water is another main challenge for farmers in Africa. While ample amounts of water exist in many parts of the continent, there lacks basic infrastructure and means of transporting the water to the crops. Kickstart (not to be confused with Kickstarter) is an international non-profit based out of San Francisco focused on designing mass-market tools for small-holder farmers in Africa. They have designed two different portable water pumps which are cheap, light, and easy to operate. Since water is mostly transported by individuals, Hippo Water Roller, a South African manufacturer of rolling water drums, helps individuals without access to taps to transport 90 liters of water with ease. Their container design allows one person to push or pull the water instead of carrying the traditional 20 liters of water on their head, and has attachments for easy irrigation.

hippo water roller

Increasingly, cleanweb has permeated the agricultural space in Africa, where the use of mobile platforms and IT based technologies can provide farmers with management knowledge and other ways to increase efficiency. There are now apps such as that of Kenyan-based iCow, which allows farmers to track the gestation periods and progress of their cows, and offering tips and suggestions to maximize efficiency. In Nigeria, Finland-based Nokia has unrolled a new phone-based information service called Nokia Life. Nokia Life provides farmers with advice on when to use fertilizer and harvest, when to sow crops, and, most importantly, what the current prices for crops and fish are. Smaller companies such as Back Pack Farm [Kenya], Farmerline [Ghana], and mLouma [Senegal] offer similar services, which can be accessed without a smart phone and therefore have mass market appeal. Sustainable Harvest, an Oregon-based coffee importer, has released a relationship-information tracking system for farmers in Africa to increase the quality and reliability of coffee supply on the ground.

Agricultural development is vital to the African economy and it will take innovation in the crop, water management, and cleanweb spaces to help reach its full potential. As population expands and food demands increase, both within the continent and globally, innovation in agricultural practices brought to Africa will be at the forefront of achieving the necessary supply. In the 2013 Global Cleantech 100 Report, Cleantech Group stated that, “the opportunity for young western technology companies to service BRIC markets and beyond remains as strong as ever.” We see this to be especially true for innovation applied to the agricultural sector in Africa. Cleantech businesses and entrepreneurs have already begun the transformation of the agricultural sector. As innovation continues to achieve increased yields and efficiencies, the people of Africa will achieve healthier, more prosperous lifestyles.