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.
‘Clarity From Above’
James Paterson, South 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.”
Ndubuisi Ekekwe, Abia State, Nigeria
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.
‘Uber For Farmers’
Brian Bosire, Kisii, Kenya
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’.
Uganda Sees 11% Growth In Sugar Output This Year
Uganda expects sugar output to rise 11% this year as three mills under construction in the country’s northern and eastern regions come online, officials say.
“Production is currently at 450,000 metric tons. When three new factories that are under construction and development start producing, we will go up to a half a million metric tons,” Uganda’s Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde says in an interview with FORBES AFRICA.
The East African country is only able to consume 360,000 tons per year, leaving a surplus for export in a region that’s grappling with deficits. Uganda exports sugar to the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania.
Underpinning the country’s sugar sector are millers, including Kakira Sugar Works, the largest producer. Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited – Lugazi and Kinyara Sugar Works are the other largest players.
While this growth in output is imperative, the government is keen to see diversification in production to include industrial sugar as the country seeks to save its foreign exchange, Kyambadde says.
“I see a bright future,” she adds, “but producers also need to diversify and produce the finer sugar. All of them are producing the bigger crystals but finer sugar for production is what we would like them to start producing.
“At the moment, we are importing that finer sugar.
“So that has been our concern with them, that why don’t you diversify and start producing the sugar that’s ready for production,” she says.
But these efforts have largely been stalled by Uganda’s high power tariffs, according to Kyambadde.
“They (millers) say from this level, the ordinary sugar, they have to have another line that would make it finer. That means the consumption of power definitely is higher,” she says.
“So that is one of the challenges; that the costs of production are so high,” she said, adding that new power plants will reduce costs to an ideal five US cents/KW.
Uganda is also looking to establish new laws to govern the sugar sector but disagreements over exclusivity clauses relating to purchase of cane from farmers abound.
In March, President Yoweri Museveni declined to assent to the Sugar Act of 2016 that was passed by Parliament in November last year. His spokesman, Don Wanyama, says the president is concerned about the proximity of millers.
“It’s going to antagonize the old sugar players,” Wanyama says. “It’s (the act) not going to be assented to,” he says.
“We hope this issue will be corrected now that the bill is being sent back to parliament,” says Jim Kabeho, the Chairman of Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, the largest industry lobby.
“Farming constitutes 60 percent of our costs; yet someone without a single tractor and using cheap old machinery just wants to come and buy from your farmers,” he said in a phone interview.
Kabeho, also a director at Kakira and a board member at regional business lobby, the East Africa Business Council, warns that Uganda has lessons to learn from Kenya which allowed “market distortions” in the name of allowing competition only to end up with less production and having to rely on imports.
Yet for Ibrahim Baliitamuto, a cane grower in the eastern district of Mayuge, all that matters is price stability.
“It’s very easy to make a fortune from sugarcane if the prices offered by factories are not changed very often,” Baliitamuto says.
“You can’t tell me about growing maize (corn) when I have a choice of sugarcane.”
Kyambadde says in returning the law to parliament, the president was being mindful of the big players.
“He thinks that the output of the small players is negligible, but we are still discussing that,” she says.
Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? They Make Bad Landing Strips For Flies
Scientists are providing new evidence to answer the longstanding question about why zebras have stripes. It appears stripes make terrible landing strips, bamboozling the fierce blood-sucking flies that try to feast on zebras and carry deadly diseases.
Researchers on Wednesday described experiments demonstrating that horse flies have a difficult time landing on zebras while easily landing on uniformly colored horses. In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-color coats.
“We showed that horse flies approach zebras and uniformly colored horses at similar rates but that they fail to land on zebras – or striped horse coats – because they fail to decelerate properly, and so fly past them or literally bump into them and bounce off,” said behavioral ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Close cousins to horses and donkeys, the world’s three zebra species, known for their black-and-white striped bodies, roam Africa’s savannas eating a variety of grasses. Their stripe patterns vary among individuals, with no two alike.
There had been four main hypotheses about the advantages zebras accrued by evolving stripes: camouflage to avoid large predators; a social function like individual recognition; thermoregulation, with stripes setting up convection currents along the animal’s back; and thwarting biting fly attacks.
“Only the last stands up to scrutiny,” Caro said. “Most biologists involved with research on mammal coloration accept that this is the reason that zebras have stripes.”
African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness that cause wasting and can be fatal.
Breeding high performance bugs for animal feed
The researchers videoed horse flies as they tried to prey on captive zebras and domestic horses at a livery in North Somerset, England. Stripes did not deter flies from a distance, as they circled horses and zebras at similar rates. But the flies managed to land on zebras less than a quarter as often.
University of Bristol biologist and study co-author Martin How said stripes may dazzle flies somehow once the insects venture close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.
“In addition to stripes that prevent controlled landings by horse flies, zebras are constantly swishing their tail and may run off if horse flies do land successfully, so they are also using behavioral means to prevent flies probing for blood,” Caro said. -Reuters
Watch Your Step: Kenyan Herders Mark Out Disease-Free Grazing Routes
The morning calm of Losirien valley was broken by a cow bell tinkling as Benjamin Kerei led his herd of about 50 animals down a parched trail alongside a dry riverbed in southwest Kenya.
On the 10-km (6-mile) journey to a nearby grazing ground, the 24-year-old was on the lookout for fresh wildlife tracks.
Like pastoralists all over the East African country, Kerei needs to keep his cattle away from wild animals to avoid exposing them to infectious diseases, some of which can be deadly to both livestock and humans.
With droughts and floods shrinking the amount of habitable land in Kenya, the search for enough food and water is driving people and wildlife deeper into each other’s territories.
As a result, cases of infectious diseases that are passed from animals to humans – called zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses – are on the rise, said Patrick Kimani, chief executive of the Kenya Livestock Producers Association.
In recent years, some herders have found a simple way of keeping their livestock and themselves healthy.
They search for grazing routes that are not used by wildlife, and mark them for others to follow.
In the southern part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Kerei – who began using the method two years ago – said zoonotic diseases were very common but herders did not know how to treat them.
“This is why we choose to use safe grazing routes to reduce (the) chances of livestock coming into contact with sick wild animals,” he said.
In Kenya, there are at least 36 known zoonotic diseases, according to Samuel Kahariri, chairman of the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA). The most serious include brucellosis, Rift Valley fever, rabies and anthrax.
Most of these diseases are widespread among pastoralist communities, Kahariri added.
Brucellosis, for example, is one of the most common zoonotic infections globally.
Mainly transmitted from cattle, sheep, goats, elk and deer, it can be passed to humans through the consumption of raw meat or unpasteurised milk, causing flu-like symptoms.
Sam Kariuki, director of the Centre for Microbiology Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, estimated that around 750 Kenyans contract brucellosis every year.
But spotty record-keeping makes it impossible to get an accurate picture of how zoonotic diseases spread, he noted.
The data does show that the number of brucellosis cases has increased in the past few years, said James Akoko, a researcher studying the disease at Maseno University in Kisumu County.
Akoko said the negative effects of climate change combined with a growing population meant there was more contact between humans, wild animals and livestock than ever before.
“People are encroaching into areas that were meant for wild animals, and that kind of contact can create opportunity for the diseases to spread across different hosts,” he said.
Pastoralists like Kerei are working hard to prevent that.
Once they identify routes that do not cross into wildlife territory, they mark them out with small brick towers.
Besides checking for tracks and faeces, they know the presence of big cats like lions and tick-eating birds indicate that grazing animals such as buffalo and deer have moved into an area, said Paul Gathitu, a Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman.
When that happens, the brick towers are dismantled, signaling to others that the route has become risky.
“It is a difficult task ensuring that our livestock do not share pasture or watering points with wildlife,” said Kerei. “But it is the only cheap and readily available measure we have.”
For now, the technique is used mainly by Maasai tribes in the Rift Valley and the Borana in northern Kenya, said Abdulaziz Jama of the Pastoralist Capacity Development Programme.
Anecdotal evidence from local elders confirms the technique works where there are no other options to fight diseases, he added.
“Use of safe grazing routes is one of the many (types of) indigenous knowledge that have been helping marginalized communities battle climate change and zoonotic diseases where the national government has failed,” he said.
The government is struggling to manage the spread of zoonotic diseases partly because of the difficulty it faces in tracking them as herders move from one location to another, said the KVA’s Kahariri.
The problem is exacerbated by poor road and communication networks in areas where pastoralists live, making it hard for them to share information with the government when a zoonotic disease appears, Kahariri added.
Ezekiel Kiamba, from Ildamat village in southeast Kenya, said officials should do more to support herders.
The 32-year-old farmer does not use safe grazing routes to protect his 80 cows. Instead, he hires a private vet to regularly check and vaccinate his herd, at $20 per dose.
He would like to see the government use modern technology to send real-time information about outbreaks to rural communities.
“Some of us pastoralists have smartphones which the government could use to work with us and help manage zoonotic diseases,” he said. “I am still waiting for this to happen.” -Reuters
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