DealMakers AFRICA Q1 2019

Startups key to driving smart agriculture in Africa

by Donna Liedemann

According to a study on IoT in Agriculture by Frost & Sullivan, ICT solutions such as precision equipment and the Internet of Things (IoT) are overcoming challenges and changing the way traditional farming is conducted in Africa.  


The study found startups are a key element to drive smart agriculture in Africa as they understand the dynamics of the continent and contribute to small business. These small businesses are a key element in eliminating poverty and improving crop yield. Mobile platforms and technology have seen the greatest adoption in Africa, due to the high capital cost of foreign technology.


Smart farming is the digitalisation of agricultural processes through the use of advanced IT equipment (sensors, geolocation systems, drones, and robotics) to make informed decisions about crop health, chemicals, and water requirements. Through the integration of information technology (IT), farmers can ensure efficient farm management by improving crop productivity and soil health, which will pave the way for long-term sustainable agricultural practices and the protection of the environment.

Agriculture is the main source of food and income in Africa, and it is essential to improve the way in which farming is done through sustainable farming practices, to ensure food security between now and 2050. Mobile connectivity and applications are driving digital transformation in the agricultural sector, allowing farmers to have access to market-related information and digital financial services.

The study also notes the need for critical infrastructure as a vital element in transforming the agricultural sector in Africa.  While the usage of advanced technology in Africa’s agricultural sector is still in a nascent phase, Frost & Sullivan estimates the number of Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices will grow by 1.8% between 2017 and 2020 for the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, reaching 1.37 million in 2020.


Africa’s challenges in the agricultural sector include slow growth, low crop productivity and dependency on natural rainfall. With emerging trends in precision agriculture, cloud performers, IoT and data analytics, farmers — with the help of technology — can observe and collect data to improve production output, reduce costs and conserve resources.

Precision agriculture is the application of technology for farm management that relies on specialised equipment, software, and IT services. This allows access to real-time data on crop, soil, and air conditions; weather and rain predictions; and labour costs through various technologies (sensors, satellites, and drones). Precision agriculture will then assist the farmer to use the right amount of water and fertiliser inputs; reduce costs and estimate yields; remotely monitor crops, equipment and livestock; as well as run statistical predictions on their crop and livestock.


Emerging trends in precision agriculture include crop management, which is an innovative agricultural practice enabled by the IoT network and technology to detect crops with deviations from normal growth, which helps determine the field sections requiring human intervention. Sensors are placed in the fields, allowing farmers to have a detailed outlook of soil conditions, such as temperature, acidity, moisture content, and surrounding air.


Drones are used to inspect farmlands and generate crop data, while robots are equipped with sensors and cameras and can pick up information such as the nutrient content of plants/crops and the health and moisture of the soil. Automated systems will also allow farmers to make immediate decisions, such as identifying fields requiring treatment and determining the best quantity of water, fertilisers, and pesticides per requirements.


Smart farming implementation increases agriculture while uplifting and empowering farmers as they confidently sow, irrigate, harvest and apply chemicals at the right time. Innovation also leads to greater farmer inclusion and drives the youth to become more engaged in the IT sector. Integrating communication technology aids in streamlining production and harvesting processes; this leads to increases in output and enriches the small farm holder. 


Mobile platforms and applications have been the key technologies revolutionising the agricultural sector and paving the way for advanced technological practices. With increasing connectivity, especially in rural areas, farmers now have increased access to farming information that is leading to increased crop output. 


Most farmers in rural areas do not have access to credit and insurance. The majority also do not have a track record enabling them to qualify for microloans and insurance. However, insurance and a credit record for small farmers are possible through partnerships with farming cooperatives, smart agriculture providers, and non-government and government organisations. Limited access to telecoms, roads and storage along with poor road transportation and inadequate storage infrastructure with fragmented value and supply chains are some of the bottlenecks that hinder the viability and scalability of small-scale farmers on the continent.


Currently, technologies are being used individually to address a particular challenge. However, the study notes that in the medium to long term, there will be increased data analysis driving precision agriculture and increased stakeholder collaboration, creating a new digital ecosystem for the agricultural sector.


Across all stages of the agriculture value chain, agricultural data is valuable for government departments, insurers, commodity traders, and developers of machine learning systems. Frost & Sullivan predicts that there will be a growing number of IoT startup companies providing new solutions to the farming sector, especially in Southern and East Africa.


Smart agriculture is the key to unlocking agricultural potential in many African countries due to the periodic rainfall, limited funding, waste, and insufficient road and support infrastructure. Startups remain the key driver for smart agriculture in Africa as they support small farmers with cost-effective and efficient solutions to overcome these challenges. 


Liedemann is Corporate Communications Officer at Frost & Sullivan Africa.

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