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African farmers missing out on AgriTech innovations, suggests Heifer International research study

A recent survey conducted by Heifer International has found plenty of young Africans producing new high-tech farming tools, which could profit the agricultural sector immensely

But the biggest roadblocks are the lack of financing, and training of the smallholder farmers. The survey reveals that only 23% of youth engaged in agriculture are using any form of agricultural technology.

The report, titled “The Future of Africa’s Agriculture: An Assessment of the Role of Youth and Technology”, includes responses from as many as 30,000 young Africans, and follow-ups with hundreds of farmers and farm organisations. It points to the need for new investments to stimulate access to innovations, that could encourage African youth who are turning away from agriculture, to reconsider opportunities in the sector – especially when there is a need to generate jobs and repair food systems, battered by the pandemic.

The report surveyed 29,900 youths, 299 smallholder farmers, and 110 agriculture technology startups, innovation hubs and technology organisations in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and identified challenges faced by smallholder farming communities, and potential areas for innovation and growth. 

“As a continent with a thriving young population, Africa’s agricultural sector must provide the investments in agritech innovations that will encourage youth to embrace agriculture-related endeavors, because they are the key to revitalising Africa’s food system,” said Adesuwa Ifedi, senior vice president for Africa programmes at Heifer International. “But as this report reveals, Africa is not providing the financing or training to ensure its young people have easy access to the same agritech tools – such as drone technologies, precision soil sensors and digital farmer services – that are transforming food production around the world,” he added.

The study also shares new insights on how the pandemic has affected African farmers. Some 40% of agriculture organisations featured in the survey report revealed that they were forced to close temporarily due to the pandemic; while 38% experienced a reduction in average purchase amount per customer; and another 36% still lack the financial capital to grow their businesses back.

Ifedi further said, “Youth engagement in agriculture will be essential to recovering from the economic impacts of the pandemic, both to rejuvenate the continent’s agri-food system and develop economic opportunities for young Africans.” 

Despite the challenges, the report also provides a window into the many ways young African entrepreneurs, across the continent, are developing creative, useful agritech tools and services for smallholder farmers. It highlights many young innovators who are boosting farm productivity, and profits in Africa, via artificial intelligence, remote sensing, geographic information software (GIS), virtual reality, drone technology, application programming interface (API) technology, and a variety of precision tools for measuring rainfall, controlling pests and analysing soil nutrients. 

For example, a company in Ghana is providing drones that offer precision applications of pesticides and fertilisers, and a company in Kenya that makes obtaining a tractor as easy as booking a cab. Ifedi noted that the many endeavours explored in the report convey that African countries have the potential to harness their home-grown innovations to accelerate a strategic transition to a more sustainable, profitable farming.

About 60% of Africa’s population consists of people who are under the age of 25, and a large share of the population is between 10 to 24 years of age, according to the United Nations. Despite the current youth migration to urban areas, the report found that young people are still interested in entering the agriculture sector. But they lack access to finance or training to build businesses that can provide sustainable incomes and rewarding careers.

The report identifies pain-points and critical needs for supporting youth to adopt advanced technologies and build businesses that advance Africa’s food security and agri-food systems

Some of the major observations include:

Access to financial capital, capacity building, and access to land will spur youth interest in agriculture

Smallholder farmers will embrace advanced technologies, if the tools are affordable and they can receive training for using them. 

Agriculture innovations have a strong pulling power for every stakeholder in the sector. They can create opportunities for young people, who might otherwise ignore agriculture, and sustainably increase productivity for smallholder farmers, while also stimulating growth in the wider economy.

The respondents also affirmed the damaging effects of climate shocks (30%), insects, pests and diseases (17%) and technology barriers (14%) on farmers’ productivity. 

The report will inform investments in advanced technologies by Heifer Africa, accelerating on-farm adoption and business growth. It will also help guide Heifer International’s programmes in Africa, including the AYuTe Africa Challenge, that will invest up to US$1.5mn in agritech businesses run by young Africans in 2021.