By Massoma Haddison, Okwelians Fellow 2021
In the past century there has been a great advancement in technology worldwide which has led to the transformation of the agricultural industry in many nations of the world. Africa has not yet harnessed up to half of its potential in the agricultural sector. The coming of COVID-19 has further exposed the vulnerability of our agricultural sector by showing how dependent Africa in general and Cameroon in particular are on food imports. ”From 2016 to 2018 Africa imported about 85% of its food from outside the continent, leading to an annual food import bill of $35 billion”(UNCTAD). With the changes in technology, population growth and the pandemic, perspectives have been changed and our nation is now compelled to take a more critical look at this very important sector.
Agriculture represents a major component of the structural transformation of the Cameroonian economy. Indeed, the increase in agricultural productivity should have a positive impact on industrial sectors, particularly agro-industry. The agricultural sector in Cameroon accounted for 42.87% of total employment in 2020 according to world bank statistics and represents more than half of the country’s exports. Cameroon has about 70% arable land which is still unexploited, and the industry is currently unable to meet production targets for major export products such as palm oil and cocoa. Between 2014 and 2018, the volume of yearly cocoa production in Cameroon rose from 281,000 tons to 336,000, but “the ministry of agriculture writes, ‘the target of 600,000 tons by 2020 will probably not be met.’” In this current state of excess demand which is growing exponentially, there is evidence of a greater need for technological integration in order to boost productivity to meet up with the unfed and rising demand.
Population growth, an emerging middle class and urbanisation constantly increase the demand for agricultural products with more people buying rather than cultivating their own food. And with economic expansion comes higher purchasing power. There is a need for a more efficient food production process that reduces wastage at all stages of the agricultural value chain and enables farmers to increase yields. Access to technology also brings more awareness to diet variety as the population is more conscious of healthier food choices. With Africa being expected to double its population by 2050, there is a greater necessity for players in the agricultural sector to harness new and existing technologies to foster the production qualities and capacities required to meet up with the current and exponentially growing demand. Technological innovations and digitization offer an opportunity to boost transformation of Cameroonian agriculture.
Technological advancement and integration make available various solutions, including…
Mobile apps that provide the simplest services, such as text messages to deliver economic advice to small holder farmers, to more complicated solutions like plant scanners that determine plant health and identify disease. Precision Agriculture or smart farming is based on the use of advanced technology in the management of crops to increase output without compromising quality. Drone technology to monitor farms. In agriculture, an important use for drones is thermal imaging. Multi-spectral sensors are mounted on a drone, which gives farmers a valuable picture of how their crops perform. These sensors allow a farmer to precisely apply needed water, fertilizers, or pesticides only where they are needed instead of applying the same amounts across the entire field.Further, smart irrigation allows for monitoring soil moisture levels, automating irrigation processes, reducing water use and more efficient consumption of resources. Farmers networks that give local farmers access to quality resources and to a broad market, thus fostering productivity and sales.
Logistic issues like appropriate packaging; automation; continuity of supply; and consideration of weather, road, and container conditions are now tackled by new tech-based companies that enable harvesters to transport and store their harvest in the best conditions, thus minimizing waste.
Some start-ups across Africa are providing technology-based solutions for the sector:
A Cameroonian company helps farmers fight crop diseases using artificial intelligence in an application that diagnoses the diseases through images. This helps curb loses due to plant disease and enables farmers to maximize their output.
A Kenyan agri-tech company installs green houses for farmers and provides them with modern farming solutions that increase crop and farmer’s efficiency.
There is an agri-tech company that provides data to farmers to maximise efficiency in various parts of the value chain, enabling them to make more money from their produce.
A Cameroonian agri-tech enterprise leverages technology to improve cocoa production and quality.
Further, there is a Cameroonian agri-tech company that specializes in aquaponics which is a field of modern agriculture focused on producing fish and vegetables without chemical fertilizers
These start-ups among many others are making available solutions for problems faced all along the value chain. We can now monitor water content, soil quality, crop health and fertilizers using satellite data. Machine learning, automation and sensors have increased precision in operations. Farmers are more connected to financial services, unlimited information, data services, partners and the market through mobile applications.
Notwithstanding all of these opportunities, local farmers, who account for approximately 75% of the actors in the sector, do not have access to such technology because they are generally small-holder rural farmers who have limited literacy and are unable to afford basic technological products and services. Furthermore, there is a lack of infrastructure that leaves a great percentage of the industry lagging behind while the country aims for exponential advancement.
While there are a few industrial challenges, there is an evolving trend of digitalization of farming systems, related services and information which has gotten young people more interested in the sector. This interest can be transformed into very rich investments of finance and labour.
What is the way forward?
Our government actively contributes to the growth of the agricultural sector, and remarkable progress is being made. Firstly, knowledge is the bedrock for everything great. Thus, to begin the transformation of this sector, a lot of investment has to be put into educating actors in the various levels of the value chain. This will enable them to broaden their knowledge and open their minds to new possibilities.
Secondly, with trust and accountability being major issues for both local and foreign investors, systems could be put in place to keep record of farms and landowners in a database that is easily accessible. Following this, the government and private sector would be able to practice “precision investment” like precision farming.
These government-led actions, followed by private sector involvement, will give us access to more information about this industry, including what fertile and unused land to exploit; the most compatible crops, resources and activities to carry out; the most suitable investors/investments for such activities; ways to maximize output from current activities; innovation with technology-based solutions in the industry; and finally how to gain a greater market share for our economy.
Our untapped resources coupled with growing digital technology unlock enormous potential for all stakeholders to boost efficiency of food production and consumption in Cameroon and in Africa. From top-grade seedlings to precision farming, sensor technology, vertical farming, drones, crop health applications, transportation and logistics, these solutions all along the value chain could yield major economic benefits. This has the potential to make our nation a super producer in the agricultural sector. /-