Giving agriculture needed push to drive economic growth
Minister of Agriculture, Dr Mohammed Abubakar, above and Adesuwa Ifedi, Senior Vice President for Heifer Programs in Africa.

By Jimoh Babatunde

One of the challenges of the Muhammadu Buhari-led Government is how to diversify the  country’s economy and making agriculture one of the avenues to achieve the objective.

Apart from economic diversification, the government wants to make the country food- secure by investing in the agricultural sector, through the intervention of several institutions, including the Central Bank of Nigeria in financing and enhancing the agricultural valu-chain.

Despite the massive investment in the sector, the overall farm yield in Nigeria is still below average. Most of the rice consumed in the country today are largely foreign rice despite  government’s efforts at reducing rice importation. Nigeria is also the largest global producer of cassava , producing around 50million metric tonnes annually.

Both crops are grown predominantly by smallholder farmers, who are faced with the problem of low productivity caused by  a combination of adverse climatic conditions and harmful farm practices.

Even though small holder farmers are faced with the problem of low productivity, they have found it difficult to adopt modern technology that will help them scale up and remove the uncertainty attached to their means of livelihood.

Low technology adoption is also noticeable among young farmers. Technology is revolutionizing every sector across the world, and the agricultural sector is no different.

There are new inventions in the sector that have the potential to increase agriculture productivity in the continent. Technology innovations have helped smallholder farmers solve many agriculture related issues across the globe.

The impact of technology is evident in terms of providing information about weather and climate, input supply smart farming techniques and information services.

Other areas that technology has impacted farmers include digital finance, precision farming tools, storage technology and agriculture e-commerce.

Although these areas are still in their infant stages of impact, the farmers in other climes have evidence of its usability and potential.

Innovation in agriculture will be embraced through a combination of education, information access and capital. Strong linkages have to be developed between smallholder farmers, agric-tech startups, research institutes, international funders, youth and governments for greater impact of innovation on the sector.

African Agric-Tech entrepreneurs are now interested in how smallholder farmers work and how they can help improve yields.

Speaking recently on how technology and innovation impact food security and sustainability in Africa, Senior Vice President for Heifer Programs in Africa, Adesuwa Ifedi, said ” we have to look at the challenges that are driving low productivity at the farm level. We cannot shift our dependency on imported food if we cannot improve our food system within the continent.

“The tomato value chain is an interesting one where we can plant and grow tomatoes almost everywhere across the continent, yet we are net importers of tomatoes. The infrastructure required to store and preserve tomatoes at the farm level is not available, and when we process tomatoes within our continent, it tends to be less competitive than the imported ones. All this can change through technology and innovation.

“We can make tomatoes more competitive by innovating how we preserve and deliver them to the market as a finished product. We have an example called “Ready Stew” produced by Kaptain Foods, a local processor in West Africa where they are doing something different and adding value to the processed tomatoes.

These types of innovations should not come from development organizations. We should focus on investing in local entrepreneurs who are committed to driving these businesses long after we are gone because this is how they will support their families and achieve their dreams. They are the solution to sustainability

On  some recent agri-tech innovations in Africa that have piqued her interest, Senior Vice President for Heifer Programs in Africa, Adesuwa Ifedi, said, “I recently encountered several through the launch of the AYuTe African Challenge, an initiative of Heifer International. AYuTe stands for Agriculture, Youth, and Technology. We had several entrants who are developing exciting innovations and chose two that we believe are game-changers to be watched in the coming years.

Hello Tractor in East Africa is one of them. They are changing the financing model for tractors while also mobilizing farmers to have access to them. They operate an Uber-like model for the tractors, which means that they do not only solve farmers problems; they create jobs for young Africans in rural farming communities around mobilizing farmers, tractor owners and tractor operators.

This model addresses two things that we are excited about: farmers need to boost yield through access to affordable tractors and job creation across the value chain. Heifer has so far invested a million dollars to support Hello Tractor’s Africa-wide expansion strategy.

The second one I will mention is Cold Hubs. The tomato value chain in Nigeria alone loses up to 40 per cent of everything produced at the farm level because of wastage and a lack of storage. That is 40 per cent that should have been in the farmer’s pocket that he never gets. We cannot address poverty if we cannot address storage and wastage that directly impacts farmers’ income.

Cold Hubs is an innovation that is driven by solar panels. The company is building solar-powered cold rooms located near local farms to preserve the shelf life of their produce. That seems like a no-brainer, right? But there are very few innovations of this sort happening at a price point that farmers can afford and via a sustainable business model. And that is why we at Heifer have invested half a million dollars in Cold Hubs to help them expand.

Cold Hubs is also creating job opportunities for young people; jobs that require maintenance and management of the storage facility. At Heifer, we believe that any solution that creates jobs while increasing farmers income is a big winner.

There is another start-up I like that seems especially relevant for dealing with challenges highlighted by the pandemic. It’s called Kuza Biashara. The business trains young people to be digital extension service providers and facilitators. They also have a large platform where they aggregate service providers and allow young people in the field to provide services to farmers.

For us at Heifer, one of the things we believe in is farmer capacity building and training at the farm level. But how can you use digital technologies to connect with them? For example, while you and I can interact via Zoom, our farmers do not have access to relevant technology that allows them to enjoy the same privileges they did before COVID.

A business like Kuza Biashara can help overcome this divide by equipping young people in farming communities with the technology they can use to go out in the field and connect farmers to training and extension services.

She has this to say on some practical ways to eliminate the barriers to tech adoption in Africa.

” I have a simple approach to this. We cannot invest in technology for technology’s sake. We must invest in technology in service to the farmer. So, we must start from the ground up, with an understanding of the farmer’s education, an understanding of the farmer’s price sensitivity, and the fact that it cannot be overly complex. We must also keep in mind that the farmer probably does not have access to Wi-Fi and power. I think that is where we must begin. Technology must meet farmers on their terms.

This is what the AYuTe Africa Challenge is all about. We are challenging innovators to approach solutions in a new way, where the farmer does not serve the technology, but the technology serves the farmer. That is more sustainable.

How governments and other stakeholders can encourage and scale up innovation in agriculture,  Adesuwa Ifedi, said there is need to understand the success levers in agriculture and support them financially.

“Farmer cooperatives and farmer-owned agribusinesses are examples of these levers. “Because we have worked with both for years, we understand that vertical integration, that enables them to earn income across the value chain is critical to support.

“At the middle level, there must be support for the social entrepreneurs and SMEs that bring innovation to farms or that transport food from farm to table. As I noted earlier, we do not have financial instruments tailored to address agriculture SMEs and innovators. Government policies also have to recognize the strategic role of these groups and provide the kind of enabling environment that allows them to thrive.

“I also believe that if we put agriculture, youth and technology together, and formulate government strategies that encourage young entrepreneurs to develop and scale-up innovations, we will be able to do great things in the sector. But this will not happen at the scale we want to see until we embrace the role of the next generation of leaders in this sector and include them today in the sector “thinking”.

Adesuwa Ifedi  noted that “we need to embrace more innovative financing models to encourage the youth. Also, we need to help smallholder farmers build commercially viable business models that will make them investment-ready and bankable. These are approaches that Heifer Nigeria is supporting.

She then disclosed that with the launch of  Heifer Nigeria, the organization is gradually rolling out its Signature Program “Naija Unlock”. “We have started investing in the Tomato value chain in Ogun State, Rice value chain in Nasarawa and Benue, Poultry Value Chain in Edo State.

“We plan to commence official launch in these states before the end of this year and begin to expand to other states.”

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