Agricultural Innovations on the Horizon

Agricultural Innovations on the Horizon

Imagine a world where Steve, a young sub-saharan African smallholder farmer, opens his eyes to the sound of a beep. It’s his phone, informing him what his crop planting schedule for the day is. Just like most people his age, Steve spends (at least) the first one hour of his day on his phone, but he is not checking Instagram. Rather, he’s running the program that will send the autonomous tractor down his farm. He is also setting the timer of the automatic irrigation system. And while he’s on his phone, the humming sound of a drone can be heard above his farm, in search of crop diseases.

While this scene looks like something from the future, we got a glimpse of that future during the Disruptive Agricultural Technology Innovation Knowledge and Challenge Conference (DAT) that was held on 5th — 6th in Nairobi, Kenya by a consortium of partners including the World Bank Group, Kuza Biashara, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Korea-World Bank Partnership Facility, SDG Partnership Platform and Dalberg.

The conference brought together policymakers, scientists, Kenya’s county and central governments, agriculture industry executives and agricultural tech entrepreneurs to discuss how disruptive technologies can be used to tackle the main challenges in the agricultural value chain.

As highlighted by Professor Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary State Department of Agricultural Research, “Technology is key to boosting efficiency, productivity and competitiveness of agriculture on the African continent.”

Over two days, conference delegates heard from a powerful group of keynote speakers and panelists on the various challenges facing smallholder farmers and how the proliferation of digital technologies could disrupt the industry.

The DAT Conference also held a scaleup pitch competition for agricultural technology (agritech) companies. Eighteen companies pitched their businesses to a group of specially-selected judges and ten were selected as the first cohort to join a specially developed agritech accelerator program where they will receive mentorship, coaching and business development support from The World Bank Group, Kuza Biashara and other influencers. The group will work collaboratively to transform the lives of 1 million smallholder farmers in Kenya — The One Million Farmer initiative (see section below).

First, Human capital

Over the last 10 years or so agriculture has lost its appeal among young people. They prefer to move from rural areas to the city, where the grass is considered greener (figuratively). So one of the key questions raised at the Conference was, “What would it take for young people to move from the cities to rural areas to farm?”

The obvious answer was “Internet Connectivity”.

Integrating agriculture with technology would do wonders to lure the youth back to the fields.

But, of course, the full solution is most complex.

Every stage of the agricultural value chain impacts the smallholder farmer in one way or another, but perhaps the biggest single issue with this industry is its fragmentation.

In the famous words of the poet W.B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” What is needed is a new center; a solid centre providing smallholder farmers with the support and assistance they need to be successful — both as farmers and as businessmen. This centre will be provided in the form of a platform that brings together multiple partners, products and services needed by the small farmer to be successful.

That’s why the DAT Conference set the stage for the 1 Million Farmer program. Introduced by Dr. Parmesh Shah, the Global Lead for Rural Livelihoods and Agricultural jobs at the World Bank, the 1 Million Farmer program seeks to unleash the potential of a million smallholder farmers in Kenya by building a digital platform that links training, knowledge, data analytics, policy support, products and services, access to market and financing.

Sri Bharatam, Founder and Chief Mentor at Kuza Biashara, highlighted the importance of how it was time for the key players in the agricultural ecosystem to collaborate rather than compete.

“It’s time to turn 1+1 to 11 rather than 2,” he said.

Building Resilience

Kenya’s agri sector is dominated by smallholder farmers, who are forced to focus on subsistence farming rather than commercial farming. According to the FAO, smallholder farmers produce 63% of the food in Kenya. However, many of them function within an increasingly complex environment of inputs, credit & insurance, advisory and market linkages.

Smallholder farmers continue to face emerging threats and shocks in the form of macro and micro-structural constraints, including those linked to and aggravated by historical, natural and financial factors.

To help them de-risk their investment, smallholder farmers need access to a range of information related to pest and disease management, improved crop varieties and water management, drought resistant seed varieties, improved production practices, as well as improved distribution channels for inputs and other agricultural assets.

Kuza’s Agripreneur Digital Platform is targeted at improving efficiency and building efficacy by alleviating decreases in productivity. Scaled as a hybrid model, the platform provides digital tools and access to products and services through the physical presence of an Agripreneur in the community.

Also, by harnessing the power of communities, and bringing on partners within the ecosystem, Kuza’s end goal is to increase the smallholder farmer’s income, strengthen them against both predictable and unpredictable risks to build their resilience both as farmers and as businessmen.

The fusing of an age-old industry like farming with modern technology will provide a massive leap forward and before we know it, Steve’s future will not be the future but rather reality!