On the sidelines of TechCrunch Battlefield Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, on December 11, a new platform that utilises Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning to predict crop yields was launched.
This technology, when combined with advanced data analytics and blockchain, can further be used to develop a credit score for advancing non-collateralised loans to farmers.
IBM Research Africa partnered with Hello Tractor, a mobile platform to enable farmers hire tractors on demand, to develop an agriculture digital wallet and decision-making platform that provides demand and supply visibility for farmers, tractor fleet operators and banks to give farmers the equipment and technology they need to build a sustainable farming enterprise.
To achieve their objectives, Hello Tractor turned to IBM’s research lab in Nairobi, Kenya. Scientists at the lab started to work with Hello Tractor’s developers to apply several technologies, including AI, Blockchain, IoT and cloud, to bring new services to the app for tractor owners and dealers, farmers and banks.
The achievement has been an important step forward towards realising food security considering the fact that sub- Saharan Africa is still dogged by lack of mechanisation of farming leading to underutilization of resources and poor crop yields.
More than 60 percent of farming in Africa is done manually and only less than 20 percent employ machinery and this is the key reason that the continent still lags in food security. Research shows that agricultural production has remained stagnant while at the same time the population has expanded with a fast-rising middle class.
As a result, Africa food imports are rising so much that according to the World Bank the demand will be up by 60 percent by 2030. The President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, in a speech at the Centre for Global Development event held in Washington DC in April 2017, said “Africa’s annual food import bill of $35 billion, estimated to rise to $110 billion by 2025, weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.”
This should not happen in a continent that has high unemployment and 600 million hectares or 60 percent of uncultivated arable land globally. The little land that is cultivated, it has been subdivided into uneconomical pieces with majority of the population using obsolete technologies and techniques leading to low productivity. In Kenya, large-scale farms that could productively be farmed using modern technologies are being sub-divided into one-eighth acre pieces and virtually sealing the possibility of food self-sufficiency. There comes a time when the continent must stop lamenting over matters they have control over and begin to change cultural practices that confine us into poverty.
For the umpteenth time, let me say once more that the emerging technologies favour Africa and all we need to is embrace them to improve on Africa’s food systems especially now as the population inches closer to 1.3 billion by 2050. The IBM/Hello Tractor solution offers the promise of unlocking potential for smallholder farmers who form the vast majority of farmers in Africa.
This is critical because if you increase efficiencies at the smallholder level, productivity levels increase, creating more jobs and reduce poverty on the scale we require. Further, the platform solution solves another major problem wastage. In this solution, blockchain will effectively deal with the issue of supply chain to reduce post-harvest losses that at the moment range between 35 percent and 50 percent and perhaps eliminate poor planning practices.
With emerging analytics that can help predict weather patterns, farmers may no longer plant without the knowledge as to when the rains will come. Former US President Thomas Jefferson once said, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”
There is still hope in agriculture but we need to inject technology into the practice and that is the only way it can contribute to real “wealth, good morals, and happiness.” And those who grew up in the farms know that agriculture gave us the culture of good morals.