Robots that harvest grapes, 3D-printed drones for crops and burgers grown from a single cell? Here’s how innovative new technology is making farming more efficient, sustainable and at the same time, revolutionizing agriculture across the continent.
In Africa, innovation in agritech is not only exciting, it’s essential. With a quarter of the economy of sub-Saharan Africa driven by agriculture – and more than 60% of the population made up of smallholder farms – technological innovation is the key to producing food that will not only meet the needs of a burgeoning population, but do it in a way that ensures the sustainability of the planet’s natural resources.
In Cape Town, there’s a foodtech company looking at agritech and sustainability through a different lens – reverse engineering. While traditional agriculture involves growing grain that can be fed to livestock until it’s time for the slaughterhouse, Mzanzi Meat are changing an age-old process by identifying the best parts of livestock and using cellular agriculture grow meat in bioreactors. These large-scale brewing vats mean that a single cell, cultivated from a cow, sheep or pig, can produce meat en masse. According to research out of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, cells from a single cow can produce 175 million hamburgers.
When you compare this to the 440,000 cows traditional farming would require for the same output, what Mzansi Meat is doing suddenly makes a lot of sense. Not only does lab-grown meat mimic the exact texture of what can be found in the shops, it is ‘farmed’ without harmful antibiotics or growth hormones. Lab-grown meat could also be the solution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, land use and other environmental concerns.
For Brett Thompson, the founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat, innovation will happen if more companies look into agritech from a biotech angle. “While more efficient irrigation systems and the use of drones have a role to play, it’s not enough,” he says.
In a landlocked country with few natural resources, farmers in Rwanda no longer need to choose between aquaculture or agriculture. NjordFrey Flagship Farm in Kayonza has created advanced, aquaponic equipment so that fish and vegetables can be farmed at the same time. The focus is hardware, but also sustainability, and the company’s starter kit includes excavating to accommodate rearing fish, establishing soil-less beds for agriculture, piping, plumbing, establishing pumps and filtration. This is all centered around increasing fish and crop production while using 95% less water.
In Ghana, Fredrick Kpamber and Kingsley Safo are the founders of an ‘eco-aquaponics’ enterprise called Big Green Agro. The off-grid farm is solar-powered and contains 194,500-liter pools, one 7,000-liter pool and four of 12,000 liters. Not only do they farm a high-quality local strain of tilapia, they cultivate nutrient-rich algae which is turned into a concentrate and used as a chemical-free fertilizer. One of the things that make Big Green Agro stand out is that the plants grown aquaponically are not for human consumption, but to feed the fish, and that makes the entire operation self-sustaining.
According to the World Bank, Africa produces 30 million metric tons of fertilizer each year – twice as much as it consumes – yet 90% of fertilizer consumed in sub-Saharan Africa is imported from outside the continent. In order to make fertilizer more accessible and affordable, technology has a role to play.
In West Africa, smallholder farmers have started to microdose fertilizer. Headquartered in India with regional hubs in Nairobi, Kenya and Mali, microdosing fertilizer is an innovation out of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
It works by applying small doses of fertilizer (one-tenth of the amount of fertilizer typically used on wheat, and one-twentieth of that used on maize) in the right place and at the right time. The process – which can be done by hand, with a drip irrigation system or via GPS-guided machinery – can effectively double crop yields and the results in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Zimbabwe have garnered worldwide attention.
Understanding the micronutrients that make up soil – and by doing so, being able to create a better, biofertilizer – is an increasingly popular part of agritech research. Preferred by agronomists and soil scientists, biofertilizers (or bio-organic fertilizers) are cost-effective, eco-friendly and guarantee sustainable agricultural production. Unlike their chemical counterparts whose use can lead to adverse effects on the environment, biofertilizers contain living microorganisms that help soil, converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use, for example.
While the biofertilizer industry is still largely underdeveloped in Africa, Zimbabwe now boasts one of the largest biofertilizer production facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientists from the Research Council of Zimbabwe and the National Commission of Science and Technology in Malawi are working together, doing innovative research to identify indigenous microbial strains with a potential of enhancing soil fertility, reverse nutrient depletion human-induced stress to soil.
In Tanzania, an agritech company named Ng’wala Inventions has developed an automated, solar-powered bio-pesticide and biofertilizer delivery machines that give smallholder farmers access with a pay-as-you-farm system. To date, Ng’wala Inventions has delivered biofertilizer to thousands of rural farmers – 70% being women and youth.
Another country focussed on its soil quality is Ethiopia and the technology they’re turning to is near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy, or NIRS. South Ethiopia, alongside its neighbors Kenya and Somalia, is experiencing the worst drought in decades and this is severely impacting soil health and as a result, the country’s agriculture sector. NIRS works by analysing the amount of light that a material absorbs, which indicates how much of a substance is within it. By using this method, soil can be judged based on the nutrients it contains without the use of environmentally harmful chemicals.
Using a NIRS device is a quick, inexpensive and (surprisingly) easy way to understand the makeup of soil and ultimately, grow better quality crops. Ethiopian lab scientists are also using NIRS to analyse fodder – both foraged and formulated – as a way to improve livestock nutrition and productivity.
Other breakthrough studies have shown that NIRS can successfully predict the oil and major fatty acid content of sesame seeds, an economically important crop in the country (next to coffee). Often referred to as Ethiopia’s white gold, sesame seeds are draught-tolerant so producing a better crop can lead to increased income and food security for smallholder farmers, improved export revenue and preservation of the country’s cultural and culinary heritage.
Rise of the machines
It’s reported that the global agricultural robots market will hit $17.8 billion by 2027. While the agricultural robot segment includes devices like drones, there are also robots that work in the fields. In South Africa’s Western Cape province, Stellenbosch is known for its rolling vineyards and wine farms and more recently, Robot X, a robot developed in South Africa by the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Robot X, or Dassie, is a unique vineyard robot built with input from local farmers with the aim of making grape production easier thanks to more accurate, real-time data.
Farms are full of data. From weather information to field statistics, seed yield and more, as technology evolves, more data points come up and this only adds to the complexity of what it takes to manage a modern farm operation. This is where precision agriculture comes in – taking big (farm) data and analysing it to maximize output. One of the most accessible ways a farmer can gather large amounts of data today is by using a drone but these eye-in-the-sky tools come at a price.
In Blantyre, South Malawi, MicroMek is a startup that is building low-cost, fixed-wing autonomous drones from 3D-printed parts and recycled materials. The drones, which were originally designed to deliver medicine and medical test kits for diagnosis to remote areas of Malawi, are now also being used by local farmers to monitor land and plant health. In a country that has to deal with climate issues like cyclones and flooding, MicroMek’s innovative Ecosoar drones are built with the environment in mind, even going so far as setting flight records in the new drone corridor in Kisungu.
Farming the future
Home to 60% of the planet’s arable land, Africa holds immense potential to not only feed its own population but also the rest of the world. In order to optimize its ecosystem and mitigate a rapidly changing climate, new techniques and technologies must come into play because despite its challenges, agriculture remains an important sector that’s ripe for disruption and digital innovation is what will help deliver the future of farming.