Agriculture is fundamental to development on the continent. It employs more than 65% of the continent’s populations and contributes 32% of Africa’s GDP. Yet the continent’s smallholder farmers, who comprise 80% of its agricultural labour forces, continue to face challenges from plant disease, unproductive soil, pests and droughts to gender disparities, unreliable markets, poor pricing information and a lack of appropriate financing.
Yesterday, the PEI hosted the first in a new series of events – the Spotlight Seminars – that explored the issues defining African agriculture today, as well as the scientific and technological innovations that will come to shape the sector in the future. PEI Chairman, the Rt Hon Lord Paul Boateng, opened the event with a warm welcome to our guests and a special thank you to our PEI Partners whose support makes these initiatives possible.
Defining the State of Agriculture in Africa Today
Our first speaker, H.E. Dr. Alexander Yakovenko, Ambassador Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom, outlined the major challenges facing African agriculture today, with climate change identified as one of the most pressing issues – decreased precipitation and a higher risk of flooding can kill crops and livestock, affect human health, and cause grave damage to wildlife. Amb. Yakovenko also highlighted the risks posed by the use of mineral based fertilisers, which can leak heavy metals such as cadmium and lead into soils and water systems, increasing the risk of non-communicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Tegan Palmer, mAgri Business Intelligence Manager at the GSMA, then spoke about M’Chikumbe, a mobile app launched in partnership with Airtel Malawi. This provides advice via interactive voice responses on a range of local crops and farming practices, as well as dynamic information such as market prices and weather. She reported that UX research conducted by the GSMA, Airtel Malawi, and Frog revealed that the app’s end users were four times more likely to change their approach to land management and planting practices compared to non-users. This project is ongoing and an in-depth case study will be published in early April and will be available on the PEI website.
Next we heard from Dr. Robert Mwanga, Sweet Potato Breeder at the International Potato Center and Winner of the 2016 World Food Prize. In an impassioned presentation, he explained that pre-existing sweet potato varieties in sub-Saharan Africa experienced significant yield losses of 50-90% due to sweet potato virus disease, and were low in nutrients. In response, Dr. Mwanga and his colleagues at the International Potato Center have worked to create orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties with accelerated breeding cycles, resistance to disease, and high beta-carotene concentrations. Since 2009, the successes of his work have been shared throughout the region, with nine countries releasing 56 new superior varieties; 40 of which are orange-fleshed. Such far-reaching impacts will prove crucial in the fight against vitamin A deficiency and associated health problems.
Perez Ochieng, CEO, Sacoma, argued that African farmers need new technology or higher yielding, more resilient food crops that deliver larger harvest, as well as greater access to energy and better infrastructure. In addition, Perez discussed how her company, Sacoma, has worked with smallholder farmers in Kenya to grow sweet potato crops, reduce post-harvest losses during transportation and storage, and expand the use of sweet potato in premium food products.
Our final speaker in the morning panel, Daniel Hulls, CEO of AgDevCo, spoke about his company’s efforts to invest in and develop early-stage farming and agri-processing businesses. These include a $2million investment in co-operative sugar outgrower business in Malawi supplying Illovo sugar. Regarding this project, Daniel explained how AgDevCo agreed with the local community to turn previously unused land into sugarcane fields, and that local households now receive $700-800 per year in dividends. A key takeaway from his presentation was that there are few quick wins and that building sustainable and profitable agri-businesses in Africa requires early stage investment, particularly in the case of high-value crops.
From there, Lord Boateng invited our audience to participate in a Q&A session with our speakers. We were delighted to see the high levels of engagement from our guests, and listen to the wide-ranging discussion. Issues raised included the importance of ensuring transparent market prices for the continent’s farmers, the sustainability of agribusiness models, and the need to strengthen agricultural education.
Innovation from Africa: The Future of Agriculture on the Continent
Our afternoon panel opened with a presentation from Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust, on the importance of conserving crop diversity. Marie outlined how protecting the world’s crop varieties is essential – one could potentially contain the traits needed to adapt crops to changing climates, increase nutritional value, and fight disease. She also discussed the Crop Trust’s capacity building partnerships with African partners, which include enhancing the heat and drought tolerance of cowpea in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Niger.
Dr. Gideon Onumah, Agricultural Economist at the Natural Resources Institute within the University of Greenwich, highlighted that whilst agriculture accounts for over 50% of the continent’s export revenues, farmers continue to face challenges such as high yield gaps and huge postharvest losses. Furthermore, Africa contains more under-exploited arable land than anywhere in the world and available technology exists that can help bridge the yield gaps – this represents both significant challenges and tremendous opportunities. He also outlined innovative financial solutions such as crop and livestock micro-insurance in countries such as Nigeria and Zambia, and promising innovations in agricultural finance such as farmer-based funded credit guarantee schemes. These are designed to soften the blow felt by farmers and insurers in the event of poor harvest.
Nico Mounard, CEO of Farm Africa, spoke at length about his organisations efforts to develop technology and innovations in line with the way farmers develop agriculture, which include drought-resistant crops and agriculture in Kenya. Nico also noted that, if we’re really focused on enhancing agricultural development in Africa, it’s essential to align private sector partners, development agencies and research bodies. He also identified three main challenges in realising this ambition: getting the business model right; making innovation practical; and ensuring the stakeholders, from business, development agencies and research institutions, are speaking the same language.
Dr. Stuart Gillespie, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Institute and CEO of Transform Nutrition, then focused on tackling the agriculture-nutrition disconnect in Africa. He began by outlining some stark facts regarding the scale of malnutrition globally in 2016. For example, 794 million people were calorie deficient, with 159 million under 5 year olds stunted and 50 million under fives wasted, and a staggering 2 billion people experiencing micronutrient malnutrition. He noted that malnutrition is by far the biggest driver of the global burden of disease, and causes annual GDP losses of 11% in Africa. Dr. Gillespie also argued that there is a clear and urgent need to rethink food systems for nutrition, as agri-food systems are not just about feeding people, but must also focus on nourishing them. This insightful re-imagining emphasised the catalytic role of women in the agricultural process.
Our final speaker, Julius Akinyemi, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at MIT Media Lab and Founder of UWIN Corp, noted the paradoxes in agriculture on the continent. He pointed out that, while Africa has the largest amount of arable land in the world and more labour units per acre of land, its agricultural yields are amongst the lowest. Julius also discussed the Unleashing the Wealth of Nations platform, which provides an innovative ‘risk sharing’ system for economic growth and financial inclusion. This focuses on leveraging a community reputational index and mobilising local ‘dormant assets’ to source affordable loans and capital. He poignantly emphasised that systems and approaches that may have worked in the developed world are not necessarily appropriate for Africa – addressing the challenges and capitalising on the opportunities will require imagination and innovation.
Our guests then embarked on another spirited discussion with our panellists, which explored how to make markets work for the poor, enhancing the resilience of the continent’s natural ecosystems, and enhancing local produce. Lord Boateng closed the event by calling on all attendees to be activists in the continent’s agricultural development.
Thanks go to our distinguished speakers for their illuminating presentations, as well as our attendees for their active participation! We are especially grateful for our PEI Partners whose assistance makes these events a reality.
Yesterday’s Spotlight Seminar was the first in a series of events that aim to celebrate and shine a light on individuals, research groups, academic institutions and commercial organisations that are creating scientific and technological advancements that are of benefit not just to Africa, but also to the world. We will be hosting our next PEI Spotlight Seminar in June, with a special focus on scientific and technological pioneers working to tackle non-communicable diseases and other public health issues in Africa. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a selection of our speakers’ presentations: