Innovation can feed millions in Africa

12th October 2022

I ate crickets last month. They came crispy in three flavours at a stand at an agricultural conference in Kigali. I preferred the salt and vinegar flavour, so was given a packet of them to bring home. Not sure my family is as keen to sample the little insects.

Food systems and food security are important in Africa just now. With fertilizer supplies disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wide spread weather disruptions, fuel price increases and infrastructural challenges, many people are in danger of starving.

Even without these challenges, aggravated increasingly by climate change, it is anomalous that Africa with its vast agricultural potential should be a net importer of food, and that maybe a quarter of the population is malnourished.

So we need innovation, whether that be in the form of harvesting insect protein, improving the yield of more conventional crops, or finding more efficient routes to better markets.

There are indeed many examples emerging of innovative technology solutions (agritech), such as bringing connected devices to farmers to help them analyse their soil and weather conditions and provide just the amount of water and fertilizer their seeds need.

The logistical challenge of getting food from field to fork sometimes seems intractable. In many countries half of food is spoiled before it can be consumed. Innovation here may not require technology so much as political sophistication and negotiation – as in considering the entrenched interests of traders who buy the crops of smallholders for low prices, but provide an essential service in the form of credit for the next season’s inputs.

Agribusiness deserves to be big in Africa, but so far it is only partly Big Business. The rest is smallholder farming supported by small, and often informal markets, logistics and other support services. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows agriculture still to provide about half the livelihoods in Africa – far ahead of the next biggest employer, which is the services sector. But if African agriculture and agribusiness are to approach the efficiencies enjoyed in more developed countries, we will need innovation at every link in the value chain. It’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs.

I have been involved in a senior management programme for leaders in agriculture in government and industry across eight African countries. Participants formed 16 teams of five people each to tackle an actualproblem or opportunity in their country.

One I really like is enabling the use of solar pumps to irrigate rice fields in Nigeria. It builds on the initiative of an entrepreneur who rents out solar pumps to small farmers who cannot afford to buy their own. The monthly rental is less than the increased value of yields, or the cost of fuel for pumps that run on diesel. This is a three-way win for the farmer, the entrepreneur and the environment, and most importantly, the idea looks economically sustainable.

This is a neat illustration of entrepreneurship in the service of development. What participants in all the projects discovered (an insight each generation seems to need to discover afresh) is that to avoid repeating failed policies they had to leave their offices in the city and talk to the farmers and communities on the ground. The most helpful organ in creating innovative solutions that work has to be the ear.

That leads us back to grilling little crickets as snacks. I don’t really think this alone is going to solve Africa’s nutrition problem, but many creative ideas can combine to have a major impact. The field is open for entrepreneurs. Investment in agritech in Africa is increasing, but it is still a small fraction of the billions flowing into fintech. Maybe the smart money should be looking now at agritech as the next big thing.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 3 October 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-10-03-jonathan-cook-innovation-can-feed-millions-in-africa/)

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