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’.
With Fruits and Green Shoots, Tigray Swaps Image of Famine for Resilience
Thirty-five years after haunting images of crying, skeletal Ethiopian children shocked the world, Tigray, the region that unwittingly became a poster child for famine, is taking on a new image – that of resilience.
In Ruwa Feleg, a highland community with vivid memories of the devastating 1984 famine, the 2016 drought, which experts said was the worst Ethiopia had seen in half a century, had minimal impact, local farmers said.
“A lot of the livestock was lost but there were no marked loss of (human) lives,” said Hidrom Haileselasie, 45. “It’s not comparable.”
For one, they had spare cash from selling temperate fruits and vegetables such as apples, apricots and almonds, and no longer live hand-to-mouth. Improved infrastructure meant food, whether to markets or as assistance, arrived faster.
So, despite food shortages, people did not starve to death, unlike during the 1984 “great famine” when a combination of severe drought and civil war killed up to 1 million people.
The lack of conflict and Ethiopia’s strong economic growth helped the arid and mountainous Tigray, home to nearly 6 million people, during the 2016 drought, experts and locals said.
Months of monitoring allowed aid agencies to deliver assistance quickly when things worsened, said Getachew Kalayu, head of planning and coordination with local non-profit Relief Society of Tigray (REST).
“Both the people and the government have learnt a lesson from 1984,” said Getachew, whose organization was set up in 1978 by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former guerrilla movement turned political party.
Environmental rehabilitation work and efforts to diversify incomes were crucial, experts say.
“If you go back 30 plus years… (Tigray) was a moonscape, so denuded, with people cutting trees for charcoal and abandoning land,” said Betsy Otto, at the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Global Water Programme.
Through painstaking work, locals moved 90 million tonnes of soil and rock by hand, built infiltration pits and embankments, and planted trees to restore landscapes, said Otto, whose organization was involved in some of the projects.
“People migrate into Tigray now, which is kind of unheard of,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The groundwater table has risen and artesian wells that had not flowed for a long time now do, she added.
Tigray also looked to micro dams and watershed management to provide irrigation so small-scale farmers can improve crop productivity, said Fatouma Seid, representative for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Ethiopia.
All these contributed to “the communities’ capacity to withstand drought situations”, said Seid, whose organization has been helping farmers for years, including those in Ruwa Feleg.
CASH FRUITS AND FREE LABOR
The changes are palpable in Abreha we Atsbeha, a village two hours southwest of Ruwa Feleg on winding, bumpy roads.
Here the community has been working for more than a decade to build terraces on hills to retain water and prevent soil erosion. With about 1,500 locals working 20 days a year, they have so far terraced 5,200 hectares, a local official said.
“Before there were no plants. After (we built) the terraces, the land breathed new life again,” Kidane Gebreselassie, the official, said proudly, pointing at the lush, green hillsides.
A large part of this impressive feat is due to a government program requiring locals to work up to 20 days a year on rehabilitating the environment.
This happens “after the harvest and when people have spare time”, said Zenebu Tilahun Negrash, an official with Tigray’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Both Zenebu and Kidane are convinced such conservation work, which won a United Nations-backed award in 2017, helped the area during the 2016 drought.
People in Tigray have long memories of what it was like in 1984.
Tsega Asgedem, 63, a farmer at Ruwa Feleg, fled to Eritrea with her family and relatives, including two newborns. She ended up begging in the streets for a time to feed her children. They did not return for three years.
“It was very difficult to even bury the dead. There was nobody strong enough to do it,” remembered Tsega, who lost relatives in the famine.
Hidrom and Kes Berihu Hailu were only 10 and 9 then, but recall the hunger, the sickness, the food aid and the dead bodies lying in the streets.
So, when they learned of fruits they could grow and sell for cash, they jumped at the chance to leave the vicious cycle of subsistence farming.
“Previously… we planted cereals only for our own (animal) feed, and even then sometimes what we produce is not enough,” recounted Kes, 44, who is also a priest.
Now, Kes’ small plot of land grows only fruits. Life has improved leaps and bounds, he said, standing in front of a large, two-story stone building he had recently built with proceeds from the sale of the fruits.
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He spent more than 80,000 Ethiopian birr ($2,820), he said.
Aid agencies, particularly the FAO and World Vision, provided them with free seedlings and taught them technical skills, said Hidrom, the local pioneer who also keeps bees.
Despite struggling with getting enough water for his plants, he sees the fruits as his future.
“The land here is very small so planting cereal crops is not profitable. Highland fruits are the way to go.”
WHAT IS NEXT?
Demand for seedlings and technical knowledge is so high the government has not been able to keep up, said Zenebu, the agricultural official and leader of the team promoting highland fruits in Tigray.
About 33,000 people were producing fruits between June and the end of December, and they hope to raise the number to 96,000 by June 2020, to boost farmer incomes as well as nutrition, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In the decade between 2006/2007 and 2016/2017, Ethiopia’s economy soared, but the country remains one of the region’s poorest, with nearly one in four living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank.
More than four out of five Ethiopians also rely on agriculture and livestock for work and income in Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria.
This makes them particularly vulnerable to weather-related disasters, many of which are becoming more frequent. Even Tigray’s restored landscape may only be able to help so much, experts said.
“Thirty, 40 years ago, there used to be rain end of May up till end of October. Now the rain comes in middle of June if you are lucky and stops first week of September,” Ehiopian aid worker Getachew said.
“So, investment in environment and water security are critical,” he said.
Farmers say they do not fear working hard, but rather the unpredictable weather and a repeat of the 1984.
“This is peace value. It allows us to secure an existence,” said Hidrom, pointing to a basket of freshly harvested almonds in his hands. -Reuters
-Thin Lei Win @thinink; Laurie Goering and Elias Gebreselassie
South Africa Farmers Seek $220 Million in Drought Aid
South Africa’s agricultural industry body AgriSA will approach banks, agribusiness and government to raise 3 billion rand ($220 million) to help farmers hit by severe drought, its executive director said.
Farmers have faced dry conditions over most of the nation for the last year, even as they are still recovering from a disastrous El Nino-induced drought in 2015.
“We have basically reached a point now where we don’t have any more fat in the system. There is no buffer any more in the agricultural sector,” AgriSA boss Omri van Zyl told reporters.
Van Zyl said the group will also speak to the government’s National Disaster Management agency to get access to the contingency reserves.
“We see this drought again as a national emergency because it is going to have an impact directly on consumer prices, it is going to have an impact on food affordability and it has an impact on the farmers on the land,” said van Zyl.
A survey of producers showed that 31,000 jobs and 7 billion rand ($510 million) in potential revenue were lost since January last year because of drought, AgriSA said.
White maize prices are just off a near two-year peak last week.
“The farmers didn’t get enough (income) to recuperate in 2016 so the grain sector is in a lot worse financial situation than it was. Our ability to absorb this current drought is under pressure,” Jannie de Villiers, head of producers body Grain SA, also told reporters at the briefing.
In early estimates for the 2018/2019 season, farmers have planted around 95 percent of the country’s yellow maize, which is mainly used in animal feed, and between 70 to 80 percent of the white maize, pushing prices higher.
The white maize futures contract due in March traded up 2.76 percent to 3,088 rand on Friday, just under a near two-year high of 3,255 rand reached last week.
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South Africa’s official Crop Estimates Committee, which in October estimated farmers would plant 2.448 million hectares of maize in the 2018/2019 season, is expected to release the preliminary area planted estimates on Jan. 29. -Reuters
Zimbabwe Seeks Wiser Ways to Use Water Amid Erratic Rains
Bensen Muzamba knows the cost of water only too well. He runs a maize farm outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, but because of poor rains at the start of the season, he was forced to purchase water to irrigate his crop – something he can ill afford.
As with many farmers across the country, he relies on rainfall – and struggles if it does not come when expected.
“It’s tough when you have to buy water … and sellers demand foreign currency,” Muzamba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, inspecting maize plants on his land about 15 km (9 miles) from Harare.
As Zimbabwe struggles with the fallout from a slow start to the rainy season, bulk suppliers that deliver water in tankers have increased their prices, citing the high cost of extracting groundwater.
And with dam levels down – though recent rains have helped – cities like Bulawayo have been exploring ways to curb water consumption in homes.
Meanwhile, violent clashes have erupted over shortages of fuel and a government-imposed fuel price hike, while U.S. dollars, one of Zimbabwe’s main currencies, are hard to come by.
Groundwater is essential to ensure farmers can grow enough food crops. But some borehole owners in Harare have been selling 1,000 liters of water for about $30, twice the going rate in October.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), a government agency, charges $10 for 1,000 liters from state-owned dams – but even that is expensive for farmers used to free rain.
Washington Zhakata, director of the climate change department at the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement, said declining rainfall in the past couple of decades had caused Zimbabwe’s groundwater levels to fall and shortened the time periods in which water is available.
This, he said, had affected farming nationwide.
“The distribution of rainfall across the country has been uneven, coupled with extended dryness,” Zhakata said by email, linking the shifts to global warming.
Average temperatures around the world have already risen about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, and southern Africa is expected to see drier conditions as warming continues.
Sobona Mtisi, an independent researcher on water and climate change in Zimbabwe, said rainfall had been low but the nation had enough groundwater stocks to meet rising demand.
Still, Zimbabwe would benefit from better methods for managing its groundwater, he added.
“(It) needs to be managed sustainably through an effective and evidence-based groundwater policy,” said the UK-based Mtisi.
Despite rains having picked up this month, forecasters’ concerns persist that an El Nino weather pattern could result in below-average rainfall this season, said Tamburiro Pasipangodya of the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department.
Up to early January, most parts of the country had received less than 75 percent of the long-term average rainfall, and a smaller amount than in the past three seasons, she noted.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network said seasonal rainfall was set to continue across southern Africa this week, bringing some relief from dryness, including to parts of Zimbabwe.
TURNING OFF THE TAP
As rains become more erratic, Zimbabwe is looking to irrigation to cushion its food supplies against drought.
In announcing the 2019 budget in November, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube allocated nearly $1 billion to the agriculture ministry to fund irrigation and borehole rehabilitation, among other measures to improve water sources for farmers.
And in a bid to deal with the long-term effects of patchy rainfall, the southwestern city of Bulawayo is proposing technological interventions to cut water consumption.
In the last week of December, water levels in Bulawayo’s dams dropped to 60 percent, from 65 percent in early November, ZINWA said.
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The city has long turned to groundwater for relief during dry spells, but a recent council report said the municipality had failed to maintain its boreholes, compromising future water availability.
This month, the Bulawayo authorities said they were looking at installing water flow regulators in homes.
According to the city’s director of engineering services, Simela Dube, the devices would be part of water management efforts allowing consumers and the municipality to save water.
The regulators would restrict consumption to pre-determined levels decided by households, depending on how much water they need, he told council chambers.
Residents would be able to use between 1 and 5 cubic meters of water per day, compared with now when can turn on their taps at will even if they cannot pay their water bill.
However, there are concerns the new proposal will meet resistance from customers who have previously rejected pre-paid water meters, said city councillor Sikhulilekile Moyo, calling for more consultation.
Jacob Mafela of the Bulawayo Residents Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that schemes to save water were generally welcome.
“We support all initiatives which at the end of the day benefit residents,” he said. “It is historically known that the city faces water challenges, but we need consensus.”
Meanwhile, as El Nino-linked rainfall uncertainty continues, farmers like Muzamba – most of whom lack insurance against crop failures – are despairing of help.
“We will keep asking government for assistance – though we know the money is not there,” he said.
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