WHEN political and business leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, in January, it was all about “mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” - the accelerated fusion of new technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.
Many fear that this new industrial age will hurt emerging markets, as they are likely to suffer when artificial intelligence and robots become widely used, reducing the competitive advantage of their cheap labour.
For 80% of Africans employed in the agriculture sector, this also holds an uncertain future since the growing of cereals and fibre crops are near-certainties to be taken over by robots.
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. Africa is not static. There are plenty of examples that illustrate how innovations and innovative approaches have transformed agriculture on the continent, suggesting that it can be a beneficiary, rather than victim, of a new technological revolution. Here are some examples:
The mobile phone may have done more than any other single technical innovation to improve prosperity, business and innovation in Africa. By eliminating the need for expensive infrastructure investments, mobile technology has opened up the continent in ways never thought to be previously possible.
One case of this is the “iCow” app, an agricultural information service available as a subscription service in Kenya to help farmers enhance productivity of their cows. For example, it helps in the prevention - and cure - of milk related diseases by tracking each cow individually, allowing the farmers to maintain all relevant information specific to each animal.
It also brings smallholder farmers closer to the market.
Another one, Esoko, was launched in Ghana to deal with the problem of farmers in the rural regions getting very bad prices for their products at the local markets. This was due partly to lack of information on where they could sell their produce at a better price. To bridge this information gap, this mobile-based platform was created to send market information to farmers. It is now being used in over 10 African countries.
Other innovations are about developing organisational skills to track supply and demand for higher productivity.
An example is “Farm Shop”, a growing Kenyan franchise network of agro dealers located in rural and under-served areas of Kenya, which hopes to boost smallholder productivity by providing farmers with high-quality products, information and financing.
Each of these stores are also equipped with an Android-powered tablet with software that allows them to quickly and easily order inventory and track transactions in real-time, giving the company a unique ability to track prices and inventory levels.
Where technology and farming meets. (Photo/Samsung IntelliSkin agriculture/Flickr).
Another concept that is starting to creep more into technological innovation are old social responsibility practices.
For example, Ghana’s CocoaLink provides farming, social and marketing information to cocoa farmers but also gives core messaging on issues like child labour.
When exploring where the “Smart” revolution can take agriculture, other aspects present themselves, especially related to the transformation of the produce itself through research and technology.
Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said “the main technologies urgently needed to unlock Africa’s agricultural potential are related to the improvement of seed varieties, soil fertility enhancement practices and efficient use of water—both for rain-fed and irrigated methods of farming.”
In Africa we’re already seeing experimentation with genetically modified crops that are being developed to increase nutrient uptake efficiency, nutritive value, countering pest or disease outbreaks and increasing their drought tolerance.
There is also the future possibility to work with nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. For example; Nanoporous zeolites which are used for the slow-release and efficient dosage of water and of fertilisers for plants, and of nutrients and drugs for livestock.
Also, the potential for nanocapsules for herbicide delivery and nanosensors for soil quality and for plant health monitoring, nano-magnets for removal of soil contaminants.nano magnets
All of this shows the great prospects that technology and innovation can offer in agricultural development and food production. It also suggests that technological innovations do not all need to be composed of radical discoveries, as small improvements of processes and products can also deliver big results.
The opportunities are almost limitless.