By 2050, agricultural productivity in Africa has the potential to increase by 70%, through technological innovation leveraged by the Internet of Things (IoT). This would meet the continent’s growing food demand which, based on population growth, is set to grow by 70%, according to a Deloitte US report on the impact of the IoT on agriculture, titled ‘Dirt to Data: The second green revolution and the Internet of Things’.
Agriculture is seen as a key economic driver by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which will hold its twenty-sixth Africa regional meeting in Kigali, Rwanda from May 11 to 13. This year’s WEF meeting, the theme of which will be ‘Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation’, will bring together regional and global leaders from business, government and civil society, who will discuss the digital economy and agree on strategic actions that can deliver shared prosperity across the continent.
The WEF has identified the IoT as one of 21 tipping points – when a specific technological shift enters mainstream society. In terms of agriculture, the forum estimates that this point will be reached by 2022. Given rising agriculture demand and the associated resource scarcity challenges, the IoT will ensure that the tipping point is reached sooner rather than later.
Deloitte Consulting agriculture sector leader Carlton Jones says the drought in Southern Africa caused by the El Niño phenomenon has resulted in lower-than-expected crop yields.
“To some extent, the crop failures reported could have been avoided through technology that is only now becoming available. Technological innovation in the agricultural sector could have helped ensure that farmers were better prepared in dealing with the current drought by informing them of what to plant and where to plant it, given the El Niño effect on the region. “While these technological advances may help farmers mitigate bad yields, implementing such technologies remains fairly expensive and may not yet be feasible for small farmers,” says Jones, adding that these technologies were likelier to be implemented by multinational corporations.
Jones noted that enhanced data translates into better products being developed for the market, thereby ensuring all-round benefits. He adds that the IoT has the potential to ensure that all stakeholders within the agricultural value chain, from large companies and smallholder farmers to food manufacturers, retailers, and even consumers are able to maximise value.
“The report notes that the IoT has proven its value in numerous industries and that the main question for stakeholders in the nascent agricultural IoT ecosystem is how to commercialise and scale the technologies, and who will pay for their development and deployment,” says Jones.
He adds that these are the strategic issues that he would like to see the WEF apply its collective mind to, across the agricultural value chain. Technological innovation, coupled with data analysis, has the potential to ensure that food production will be able to keep apace with global population growth.
“Despite the green revolution having being modelled in the US, an African green revolution is yet to take place. Such a revolution will take into account localised factors, [lessons] from other developing economies and the use of the IoT as an enabler to enhance the sector as a whole,” says Jones.
He adds that the green revolution is one driven less by new techniques with the consequences of resource depletion and soil degradation, than by technology which gives farmers the data to help make better choices. Jones believes that the revolution will likely be grounded in the use of data to inform more efficient and effective farming practices, as well as drive associated environmental and social benefits.
TYPES OF INNOVATIVE TECH
A wave of innovations – from satellite geomapping developed by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration to drones used to collect aerial data – provide insight into the health of the land on a real-time basis. Technologies such as advanced sensors and monitoring equipment now enable farmers to monitor crops more precisely and continuously, thereby enabling more strategic decision-making to increase productivity, with a reduced impact on the environment.
“The uses of these technologies cover the entire spectrum – from more productive farming techniques to improved nutrition. Sensors attached to livestock provide early warning of illness, enabling prevention and thereby increasing milk yields. Further, such a targeted approach to veterinary care can have the added benefit of reducing the need for herd-wide preventative antibiotics, which have been shown to contribute to drug-resistant bacteria,” says Jones.
One method whereby smallholder farmers can benefit from IoT is through the aggregation of their resources and equipment, something already implemented in South Africa.
Additional value can be created when one considers the role of agriculture in emerging economies. In these economies, the IoT can provide value not only through increased resource efficiency and crop productivity, but also by providing social value and financial benefits for smallholder farmers.
Collaborations like these to deploy IoT technologies will be increasingly vital if the world’s farms are to feed the estimated 11-billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050.
Jones maintains that, despite the challenges, there is cause for optimism.