Africa entices youth to farming with technology

RULINDO, Rwanda (Reuters) — Marie Chantal Akingeneye has had no source of manure for her fruits and vegetables since she lost her only cow to an unknown illness, but she hopes a new phone app could help.

After attending a training session by the United Nations, which developed the technology, she thinks the app will help to keep her goats and pigs healthy and modernize her farm for her six-year-old son to take over.

“It tells farmers about symptoms and diseases that attack livestock,” said the 28-year-old single mother, sitting outside her home in northern Rwanda.

“The cow died because I didn’t know it was sick. Now I don’t have much fertilizer.”

Donors and African governments hope such tools could also lure youth to farming as the continent struggles with rising hunger, unemployment and migration.

Africa has the world’s youngest population — 60 percent of its 1.2 billion people are younger than 25 — but only three million jobs are created for some 12 million young people who enter the workforce each year, the African Development Bank says.

While developed nations turn to robots, block chain, artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve agricultural challenges, simple, mobile phone-based offerings could produce great results in Africa, experts say.

The free app, which was created by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, also provides information on weather, market prices for crops, and producing and conserving nutritious foods.

“Digital technologies like these can make farming more interesting,” said Andy Jarvis, research director at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

“They could be transformational for Africa. A simple text to a farmer just to say, ‘the weather outlook for the next three days is this,’ can fundamentally change what they do.”

Daniel Nshimiyimana, a Rwandan university graduate who turned his grandparents’ neglected land into a thriving farm producing bananas, maize and beans, is one of 50 farmers who have been testing the app since late 2016.

“The app helps by telling me about the quality of seeds I have to plant, the quantity of fertilizer to use, the distance between the trees,” he said.

“One bunch of (my) bananas used to weigh 30 kilos. Now they are 40, 50 kilos,” Nshimiyimana said proudly, pointing at the trees planted on a precipitously steep slope.

Still, he is a rarity on a continent where the average age of farmers is 60, according to the FAO, and agriculture is seen as unprofitable, back-breaking work.

However, a growing number of tech-savvy young Africans are taking an interest in developing products to modernize farming, from solar-powered devices that measure soil conditions and optimize water and fertilizer use to tractors that analyze data.

“Normally people have the wrong perception of Africa — all the wars and political problems,” said Mwila Kangwa, head of Zambian start-up AgriPredict, which developed an app to help farmers identify diseases and pests.

“But we’re 54 (countries). If we can come together with these technologies and see how we can improve agriculture, Africa will have a whole new face.”

But technology is not “a silver bullet,” and its viability is uncertain when it is donor-funded, said Worlali Senyo of the agri-tech company Farmerline, which created a free app, CocoaLink, to encourage young Ghanaians to farm.

“If the funding runs out, it’s going to be like other interventions that failed,” said Senyo, a senior consultant with the company, which developed CocoaLink with the support of the U.S. chocolate maker Hershey Co.

“The best would be to work with local companies to find more sustainable approaches.”

It will also take time for technology to revolutionize Africa’s agriculture, Jarvis said, because farmers tend to be conservative with poor digital literacy.

“It’s not like Google or IBM jump on this, create a major product, roll it out, with massive marketing. That’s not how innovation works in those geographies and communities,” he said.

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