Improving yield, efficiency and profitability in agriculture comes down to the harvesting of technology. At its forefront are the agritech innovators bringing transformative change to the continent’s green economy. FORBES AFRICA profiles some of Africa’s biggest agripreneurs, inventors, and agribusiness leaders changing the way we think about farming, food security and climate resilience. They have cultivated a passion for smart agriculture and are leading the charge for social change not only for the sector but for the continent – and for humanity’s sustainable future.
Words and Curation: Chanel Retief and Lillian Roberts
Art Director: Lucy Nkosi Photography: Katlego Mokubyane
Photography Assistant: Sbusiso Sigidi Studio: NewKatz Studio, Johannesburg
CNBC Africa Videographer: Thabo Mathebula
Video Editor: Chanel Retief
Styling: Bontlefeela Mogoye and Wanda Baloyi
Outfits supplied by: Kworks Design; Imprint South Africa; House of Suitability; LSJ Designs
Hair & Makeup: Makole Made
“What are you looking at?” Dr Agnes Kalibata asked the smart young businessman standing next to her at a summit in Kenya, who seemed suddenly distracted, looking at his phone.
“‘I am checking on my cows in the Ivory Coast’, he said to me,” says Kalibata, the Rwandan agricultural scientist and policymaker, and President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
“Then he said ‘I installed solar cameras all around my farm, which is a side hustle for me, so that I can check on my livestock whilst I work here in Kenya’.
“For me, that’s the future of farming!” exults Kalibata.
It all boils down to not just crops or copses, flower beds or bouquets.
It lies in the innovations sown into the evolving landscape of agricultural technology or agtech/agritech.
And these agripreneurs don’t mind getting their hands dirty either – beyond their smart business suits. The opportunities for them are immediate and ripe for the picking.
“What we’re seeing happening in the space, is a higher uptake of technology,” says Dr Mandla Mpofu, the Managing Director of Omnia’s Agriculture Division, to FORBES AFRICA.
Ominia Group specializes in conducting research and development, manufactures and supplies chemicals and specialized services and solutions for the agriculture, mining and chemicals application industries.
“By technology I just don’t mean the electronic side of it but also understanding the industry a bit better. So what I’m talking about here is understanding the soil, working on improving yields. And then you have satellite technology being used and we’re seeing artificial intelligence coming into this very, very exciting industry.”
Kalibata tells FORBES AFRICA that the agricultural sector has really been defined by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“There are specific moments in time that completely change how we think about business and how we do business,” Kalibata adds. “So specifically, this particular revolution, I would say, there’s a real revolution happening from an agtech perspective… This is why there are so many new ways of looking at how agriculture can be done, all the way from how we generate the technologies that we use.”
One of the biggest issues Khadija Mohamed-Churchill, founder of Kwanza Tukule in Kenya, encountered when she began in this industry was the food supply chain.
“It’s really difficult to solve but can be solved. Also, the investments don’t want to flow there. Investment wants to flow into things like unicorns or fintech. I mean, people have to eat. They will transfer money via mobile phones, they’ll take loans, but if they don’t have food, at some point, the priorities need to shift to focus on these fundamental things,” Mohamed-Churchill explains.
Let’s take a step back.
In 2022, the World Economic Forum estimated that there are well over 600 million smallholder farmers around the world working on less than two hectares of land. These farmers are estimated to produce 28%-31% of the total crop production and 30%-34% of food supply on 24% of gross agricultural area.
A further study done by the United Nations showed that the world population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050, and to feed that number of people, global food production will need to grow by 70%. For Africa, which is projected to be home to about 2 billion people by then, farm productivity must accelerate at a faster rate than the global average to avoid continued mass hunger.
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are over 400 agritech solutions and startups, according to a 2020 report by the global telecoms industry lobby GSMA. Agriculture makes up 35% of Africa’s GDP and employs about half of its people, but the continent still imports billions of dollars of agri-products every year.
“From the outside, agriculture looks pretty dirty,” the CEO and co-founder of Khula!, Karidas Tshintsholo, says to FORBES AFRICA. “But I’m a numbers guy… Once I started looking at the numbers and saw that we [Africa] have most of the world’s arable land, which is 60%, is here are the ones [with] remaining arable land. Almost everybody on the continent is dependent on agriculture for survival.”
“I would look at agriculture in terms of the size of the opportunity,” Peter Njonjo, theCEO and co-founder of Twiga Foods in Kenya, adds.
The opportunities may look monetary but for a number of the agritechs, especially the ones we looked at for this feature, it’s about two mutually exclusive yet different reasons – solving food security on the continent while becoming climate-resilient.
“The yields of certain crops in Africa have already dropped by several percentage points, because of warming and drought. So, it’s already happening. So, you can’t possibly talk about sustainable agriculture without talking about climate change,” says Professor Guy Midgley, Head of the School for Climate Studies in Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
In a report by Deloitte, with about 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, as Tshintsholo previously states, Africa has the capacity to meet the world’s long-term food demand.
In addition, land already under cultivation could produce much more but crop yields remain at half the global average.
With the right know-how and inputs, Africa’s average cropland productivity can more than double. Coupled with positive global food demand, Africa’s underutilization of its land resources for farming implies significant growth opportunities for agricultural producers and exporters in Africa.
For Midgley, it comes back to the fact there needs to be a better understanding of the integrated challenges. According to him, Europe and North America have access to what are called integrated assessment models (IAM). These models aim to provide policy-relevant insights into global environmental change and sustainable development issues by providing a quantitative description of key processes in the human and earth systems and their interactions, which, as Midgley assesses, are “really important and really valuable for asking questions about our policy”.
“We’ve been late or rather our politicians have been late to realize the potential benefits of a green economy,” Midgley adds. “I think we need as a region a much better understanding of the integrated nature of these challenges… Our policy might sustain food security, within the constraints of water availability, within the constraints of fertilizer requirements. We don’t have available to us to inform the policymakers of what is the best combination of scenarios going forward. There are many scenarios that would get us to a sustainable future, which would balance the interests of different countries on this continent.”
Kalibata’s view holds a different approach and one where we need to address these issues from a more holistic scientific perspective, which will help tackle food security.
“I actually think that the future of agriculture is smaller than 60%,” she says. “We don’t need 60% of land to drive agriculture. Some young people are already beginning to farm vertically, right? And we recognize that some young people are already beginning to use what it is called hydroponics, recognizing that you don’t need soil, and now let’s produce food… In Singapore, you see people making chicken using stem cell research.”
Although the innovators featured on these pages are not dabbling in stem cell research, the solution for these agripreneurs is ensuring that accessibility is at the forefront of all their work and ideas. Studies have shown that in most African countries, agriculture accounts for 70% of the labor force, over 25% of GDP and 20% of agribusiness.
Agriculture remains largely traditional and is concentrated in the hands of smallholders and pastoralists, the Economic Report on Africa 2009 stated. Often women provide much or most of the labor, but don’t reap the economic benefits.
“I think that it is often misconstrued that farmers are not willing to adopt tech,” Tshintsholo says. “But I think if you’re able to speak to them [about] their pain points, inputs, selling their products and financing, you will find that the uptake is actually quite high. And I think one of the lacking factors is solutions that actually speak to the real pain points farmers are facing.”
“I think tech could be most impactful in a continent like Africa,” Njonjo adds. “Where we have the largest inventory of cultivated farmland on earth or the continent is both important strategically for the global food system. But also, when it comes to stabilizing the economy, this is where more the impact and kind of social mission of the company comes in.”
On the following pages, FORBES AFRICA speaks to some of the leading agri-players tackling farming tech and trends and feeding the continent .