Partnership deal to transform African agriculture

Drone technology has been identified as one of the important modern digital implements that can be used by young Africans and women to improve food security on the continent.

This was confirmed at the just ended two-day High-Level Dialogue on Feeding Africa, which took place virtually last week, and was attended by eighteen heads of states in Africa.

They were joined by Agnès Kalibata, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the 2021 Food Systems Summit; former UK prime minister, now Executive Chairman of the Institute for Global Change, Tony Blair; the heads of FAO, Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA), the Islamic Development Bank Group and Afreximbank; among other representatives from the public and private sector.

“The young people, they are the ones who will use the drones, they use satellite imagery, they use remote sensing,” said BADEA President Akinwumi A. Adesina, who emphasised that engaging youth in agribusiness will be critical to food security on the continent.

Indeed, precision agriculture has emerged as one of the biggest beneficiaries of drones arriving on the industrial scene. Between spraying crops, monitoring their health, checking farm perimeters; even herding livestock, drone technology might have brought the love of farming back in African youth.

Because tilling the land using oxen, hoes or even legacy cultivating machinery is really not attractive to today’s youth.

But drones are fun to work with. And while they can have their fun on the controls of an agricultural drone, young drone agricultural drone operators – along with other precision agriculture entrepreneurs in Africa – are playing their part in securing the food supply chains for their fellow citizens on the continent.

Take Africa Goes digital, for instance.

A group of eleven young entrepreneurs, most of them possessing digital skills; and all of them with a passion to transform the African agricultural landscape into a high-tech industry, came together in 2018 to discuss ways to accelerate that transformation.

“We met in Accra, Ghana during an ‘experience capitalisation workshop’ organised by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA),” the group, which has since grown to 39 start-ups, says on its website. “The purpose of the gathering was to analyse the experience we gained over a period of more than a year in launching agricultural drone operations in a series of African countries.

“The idea to form a pan-African industry association of digital operators offering, among others, UAS-based services, was launched by Dr Abdelaziz Lawani, CEO of Global Partners in Benin, and Assistant Professor, Eastern Kentucky University in the USA. Participants at the workshop endorsed the proposal, and decided to form a body where individual enterprise assets could coalesce and result in powerful synergies, with the shared objective of accelerating the digital transformation of Africa.”

Alley Capital Group crew getting ready in Zimbabwe

With initial funding and support from the CTA, Africa Goes Digital was born. Members like Alley Capital Group from Zimbabwe and Benin’s Global Partners have taken their autonomous tin birds into the air, providing sugarcane, maize, cotton, rice and pineapple farmers in their respective countries with time saving solutions to their problems, in the areas of crop dusting, survey and mapping, as well as crop monitoring.

Then there is Flying Labs’ approach; in which another group of drone and robotics technology start-ups in the Global South coalesced under the aegis of Swiss non-governmental organisation WeRobotics, to equip themselves with the kind of UAS and robotics knowledge that would see them providing related solutions in their own countries, in a project that they call The Power of Local.

There are eighteen such Flying Labs in Africa, and their number is steadily growing. In this cluster of drone start-ups, the Cote d’Ivoire Flying Labs probably stands out, because of the work they have done in the west African country – mapping out small holder cocoa farms so they can stay within the bounds of sustainable farming, under the UTZ Certification programme.

As a private enterprise (called Investiv Group), the start-up had held the agriculture drone technology flag high, coming second at the Jack Ma Foundation-sponsored Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI) last December.

Besides working on correcting the technological imbalance that exists in most countries in the southern hemisphere right now, the Flying Labs mandate is to impart their knowledge to the next generations, so now and again, they gather up little kids and teach them about robotics and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, drone coding; and how to fly the drones.  

The hope is that – instead of dragging each other in sacks or pushing bricks around the yard and pretending they were miniature toy cars like we used to do – the kids will grow up addicted to actual digital gadgetry, which they will put to good use when they grow up.

There are a lot other individual agricultural drone enterprises around the continent, which have done their bit in staking drones’ claim as the technology of choice in precision agriculture.

Integrated Aerial Systems in South Africa is one. The Cape Town-based start-up were so happy to finally receive their operator’s licence in January (you would do the same too if you waited years to get that liberating piece of paper) that in celebration, they went out and bought a fleet of eight new drones to hit the ground running on the crop spraying space.

Recently, the drones took their spraying prowess out to the seaside town of Hermanus in Western Cape, where they had problems with a weed called Port Jackson.

The Integrated Aerial Drone had a date with weeds in the Western Cape

“We used two of our crop spraying drones to spray a plot of land near Hermanus which was covered in Port Jackson, an alien invasive species from Australia,” the company said. “In two days, we had sprayed an area covering 40 hectares. This is arguably the first time in South Africa drones have been deployed to spray invasive alien vegetation, which is a major threat to biodiversity in catchment areas. Moreover, such weeds consume more water than local plants, depleting underground water sources.

“Dense alien vegetation can also provide plenty of fuel for veld fires, making them exceptionally hot, which damages the burnt area’s soil structure. The use of drones is a promising tool to help control alien vegetation.”

Rocketfarm – a subsidiary of Delta Drone International – are another unmanned aerial solution to precision agriculture, as are Sunagri in Uganda and Zambia.

These ventures’ entrance on the agricultural field has had a direct and positive bearing on crop yields and sustainable farming practices across the continent. Obviously, the powers that be on the continent want to see this continue – which is why, as one of the main outcomes of the high-level dialogue, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and BADEA signed a memorandum of understanding for future collaboration to promote agricultural infrastructure development and skills training for women and youth on the continent.

The agreement, which would also advance climate-smart agriculture in Africa, was signed by FAO Director-General Dr Qu Dongyu and BADEA Director-General Sidi Ould Tah at the virtual meeting, which was also organised in partnership with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa and the CGIAR global partnership.

“Africa is a top priority for FAO,” said Dr Qu Dongyu. “With this agreement we want to modernise Africa’s agriculture, and make it more efficient, more inclusive and more sustainable.”

BADEA said its supports collaborative efforts to boost Africa’s agricultural productivity through its Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) initiative – a partnership of the African Development Bank, the CGIAR, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

“Our High-level Dialogue on Feeding Africa provides a platform for commitments advancing Africa’s agricultural and food systems transformation,” said Atsuko Toda, the Bank’s Acting Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development, and its Director for Agricultural Finance and Rural Development. “The virtual signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa showcases international interest in scaling up programs and policies that work across the continent.”

If you want to know how drones can make your life better on the farm, then you will want to listen to Louise Jupp at the Drones and Unmanned Aviation Conference scheduled for Johannesburg this June.

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