Columnists

The future of Kenya’s agribusiness is automation and mechanisation

A tea plucking machine in operation at a tea estate in Kericho county.

A tea plucking machine in operation at a tea estate in Kericho. FILE PHOTO | VITALIS KIMUTAI | NMG

The logistics and supply chain industry is going through an upgrade globally. Thanks to robotic process automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and so on. Operations are being automated and streamlined, and workers are now tasked with managing sophisticated technology instead of performing mundane tasks. Here’s how technology is changing the supply chain for the better.

Smart sensors and parts can detect failure before it happens, and smart algorithms can determine the best price for replacement parts using multiple factors.

AI has unlimited applications on supply chains. One example is smart chips that can sense danger, track performance and perform security tasks.

Robotic process automation (RPA) enables intelligent software to observe a repetitive supply chain task through the user interface and then perform it on its own. Blockchain technology can ensure that different companies and people along the supply chain can trust the process, and are accountable to each other in real-time. Unlike the assembly line robots of yester years, today’s supply chain robots are autonomous, learn from their surroundings and need little to no intervention from humans.

Driverless vehicles, advanced Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors, robotics and high-res cameras allow dangerous supply chain operations to be completely managed from a safe location.

Tea pickers in Kericho recently destroyed machines brought in to replace them during violent protests that highlighted the challenge faced by workers as more agribusiness companies are beginning to rely on automation to cut costs.

Research shows that one machine can bring the cost of harvesting tea to Sh4 per kilogramme from Sh15.32 with hand-plucking.

Mechanisation makes business sense for tea producers and they are unlikely to ditch tea-harvesting machines that lower their costs. But the trend is likely to continue hurting rural communities where farm workers are central to economic activity.

Workers and residents will continue to oppose these changes because they lack alternative employment options.

It has been found that potential disruptions caused by the integration of technology and mechanisation can seem initially threatening.

However, it is important for all stakeholders (agricultural organisations, farmers, processors) involved to see these as increasingly imminent and unavoidable.

But is this going to be a case of victimhood as opposed to harnessing an opportunity to exploit the development of industries to manufacture inputs that the industry requires?

Create industries to make the machines locally, service them and create employment in the same sector. We will always be an agro-based economy based on the natural endowments that abound. The perpetual clamour and rhetoric by the political class about youth unemployment should be replaced by proactive insights into how to agro-industrialise the rural areas where the bulk of the youth reside.
Exporting processed agricultural products rather than raw commodities benefits society much more than just the increased value of the commodities themselves. Processing adds to the value of the products and generates greater business activity, more jobs, higher personal income, and greater tax revenues.

China is the world’s largest tea exporter. In a paper calling for more efficient mechanization of tea harvesting in China, published in March, Wu Luofa of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the Jiangxi Academy of Agricultural Science noted that manual tea picking accounts for more than half of the cost of tea production.

“Developing and popularizing tea-picking machines is beneficial to increase labor productivity, reduce labor cost, enhance the market competitiveness of tea products and promote the sustainable development of the tea industry,” he said.

Adopting technology and mechanization is key to unlocking the potential of agriculture across Africa and should therefore be embraced, despite the frustrations of some workers, according to the Managing Director of African Commodities Exchange (AFEX) in Kenya.

Whilst this is a look in the right direction, why are we not louder in proposing the creation of local factories that should be manufacturing the so-called modern farm equipment? It would make more sense for a displaced tea-picker by a tea-picking robot to find himself in a local factory manufacturing the robots, rather than find himself jobless because of an imported robot that was made in China.

Paradigm shifts and positive migrations of mindset are required in order to agro-industrialize our production areas. This will catapult our agribusiness by plugging ourselves into higher value chains and advanced global supply chains. It is time to migrate from quantity to quality.

Jack Bwana is a Trade, Transport and Supply Chain Consultant at Leverage Consulting.