The new innovators talking tech to power in Africa’s agricultural economies. Could they be the future of farming and the continent’s path out of poverty?
Picture this: remote rural Africa, where communities assiduously farm vast stretches of arable land not knowing anything about digital technology or drones that can transform their lives.
Now picture this: forward-thinking innovators and entrepreneurs who swap the city for the village and lend these communities the tech and savvy to change farming – and their fortunes – forever.
Agriculture, the mainstay of Africa’s informal economies, needs a facelift, and some new faces to talk tech to power. Agri-tech is the buzzword, and we profile three innovators spearheading change in their communities. They grew up on these farms, and knowing their earth best, have created the technology they need, in turn revolutionizing agriculture, from the little corners of Africa.
An unidentified flying object hovers over a 150-hectare orange farm in a small town called Clanwilliam in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.
It’s the first time James Paterson is testing his homemade drone. The object flies over the mountainous terrain offering a bird’s eye view, then singles out a tree with stunted growth. The object detects that the tree is not receiving enough water.
The object looks like a prop out of the Transformers movie series. It has eyes too – a camera lens – to monitor what’s happening on the ground. Paterson, 29, controls this propeller-enhanced technology using a controller. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aerobotics, a company that interprets satellite and aerial drone analytics to enable farmers.
He calls it “clarity from above”.
The drone space in Africa has significantly developed over the years, and the view from below has certainly changed too. In Rwanda, drones are a common sight, famously used to deliver blood and medical supplies to remote areas, and here in this small South African farm, it’s being used to improve the way we grow food.
Aerobotics’ core mandate is to provide data on tree crops, enabling farmers with information on disease, pests and water usage. They are able to tell the farmers if a tree lacks nutrition and what it needs.
“Find one small thing that is going to improve the farmers’ life and then focus on that,” says Paterson.
“Instead of just giving the farmer a picture or a map, we give him exactly what’s going on with the tree and we can track that over time.”
He believes this would be useful in areas such as Cape Town with the ongoing water crisis.
He co-founded the company with Benji Meltzer in 2014 after they built drones in Paterson’s garage. Paterson, who grew up on a fruit farm, had always loved aeronautics. Meltzer is also the Chief Technology Officer of Aerobotics.
Now, he is able to merge farming and tech into something he enjoys doing on a daily basis; running an aeronautical company providing farm analytical services.
“Some farmers… like the older way of doing things.”
But running the company hasn’t always been easy. Apart from competing with drone companies providing similar services, their biggest challenge has been trying to convince farmers to use their product.
“Some farmers… like the older way of doing things,” says Paterson.
“But even then, after we have met with them and we show them what that can do, they can really understand this is something that can help them on the farm.”
Currently, they have over 200 clients in countries such as the United States, Russia and South Africa.
Paterson has been one of the few to benefit from drone innovation in agriculture. He says he and the team were the only South African startups amongst 24 companies around the world to be part of Google’s Launchpad Accelerator in San Francisco early this year.
They have also secured an R8 million ($663,000) fund from two venture capital firms who Paterson says saw the benefit of their software for farmers. They are currently undergoing a new round of funding.
Aerobotics’ Chief Financial Officer, Timothy Willis, believes that technology in farming can assist in better risk mitigation and enhancing efficiencies around yields.
“I think those two things together will add to making a more efficient agricultural sector in Africa,” he says.
Five years from now, Paterson predicts drones will become more autonomous.
“In the future, you won’t be concerned about the drone, it will just do all the work for you.”
From a farm in the Abia State of Nigeria, Dr Ndubuisi Ekekwe talks to us about a table.
Not just any table, but a small square-shaped table resting on one leg, which actually is “an electronic farm diary” that records and collects crucial information for farmers.
Ekekwe calls it Zenvus, which he created in 2011. It collects data on the soil’s pH, moisture and temperature, and records the sun’s intensity and humidity in the air. An inbuilt solar panel charges it.
The device is his contribution to smart farming. It wirelessly transmits the recorded data to a cloud server from which farmers access it on a mobile app and get real-time data.
“2020 to 2030 will be the decade of agri-tech,” Ekekwe tells FORBES AFRICA.
Zenvus services corporates, and have supplied to 500,000 farming entities. He says it’s currently in a partnership with the government of Cross River State in Nigeria, as well as Abia State.
Ekekwe says he has been approached by a number of international companies wanting to cash in on Zenvus. However, he has been reluctant to sell it.
“Someone wanted to buy Zenvus for $5 million five years ago. I wouldn’t even sell it for $15 million, just to tell you the kind of value it has,” he says.
For Ekekwe, it’s more important to service farmers. To date, he prides himself in having the largest farmers’ cooperative in Africa.
“I wouldn’t even sell it for $15 million.”
Ekekwe grew up as a farm boy in a village called Ovim in Abia State. Growing up, he received distinctions throughout his high school year and went on to acquire an engineering degree, four master’s degrees, two doctorates in management and microelectronics, as also a medical robotics degree from the United States.
He chose to move back and stay on in his village.
Ovim is known for the Ajonkwu festival when the Igbo community gather to celebrate the harvesting season.
According to Ekekwe, farmers rely on the moon to obtain a greater yield. As a result, tech for farming isn’t something a lot of people in his community are open to.
“Farmers are not literate and that is why we are not selling tech to them, we are selling the service,” he says.
According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), 65% of Africa’s labor force is engaged in agriculture. Despite this, agricultural productivity on the African continent still lags behind significantly compared to other continents. AGRA suggests that farming only accounts for 32% of the continent’s GDP. Africa therefore does not reap the benefits of agriculture.
Ekekwe says the future of Africa is farming. He believes the convergence of tech and agriculture will result in more people wanting a piece of the pie of agri-tech startups and open up more opportunities for Africans across the continent.
On a farm in southwestern Kenya, in the small town of Kisii, a field agent reads data off a yellow square-shaped monitor, which has wires running into a smaller device connecting to the soil. It takes him about five minutes to read data regarding the soil’s PH, water levels, and disease and pests found on it. In almost two minutes, the data is sent to the farmer.
The field worker’s job is done and he looks at his phone to find his next requested farm match.
The device that has helped him is named UjuziKilimo, which is Swahili for ‘knowledge farming’. Its founder, 24-year-old Brian Bosire, calls it “an Uber service for farmers”, and this on a farm that even Uber might find difficult to access.
The field worker travels to the nearest farmer who has requested his services. This kind of smart farming service costs the Kenyan farmer about $20.
Bosire had always wanted to become a key contributor to Kenya’s agricultural industry. He grew up in Kisii, a town known for its highlands and wet weather – favorable climate for farming. Frustrated by the lethargic technological growth in the agricultural space in his town, he sought to create something innovative that would improve the yields for the farmers of Kisii.
“We aren’t selling tech, we are selling the solutions,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
Bosire says what he tries to do is become as close to the farmer as possible. As a result, he and his team target small-scale farmers and read data on vegetable crops, maize being one of them. The UjuziKilimo can read data from about five to 10 acres of land. Farmers can request data on their farms by simply sending an SMS so even farmers with the most basic cellular devices can benefit.
“We aren’t selling tech, we are selling the solutions.”
When Bosire moved to the big city of Nairobi to study, he took advantage of every opportunity to pursue his dreams as an entrepreneur. To date, he has founded three companies, all operating in the tech innovation space, UjuziKilimo one of them.
It’s old hat that Kenya, the country which pioneered M-Pesa as one of Africa’s leading startups, is home to a lot more players in the tech space. But Bosire says his business is different.
Earlier this year, his other innovation company, HydroIQ, won the Startup of the Year Africa 2018 award. Slightly linked to agri-tech, it’s a virtual water network operator which connects water utility companies and water consumers through an online platform. It allows for mobile money payments, data analytics, leakage detections and water use and consumption through sensors that relay information.
All this leads one to believe that the future face of farming in Africa is young.
Bosire hopes UjuziKilimo can grow to reach from 10,000 farmers to over 50,000.
“We want to become the largest data center of agriculture analytics in Africa,” he says. Future plans include launching UjuziKilimo in the United Kingdom under the name ‘Soil Pal’.