By Walcott Aganu

With food insecurity on the rise in Africa, smallholder farmers are turning to new technologies to improve food production and marketability. The global population is predicted to grow by 2 billion by 2050 and with more than half of that growth coming from Sub-Saharan Africa, addressing food insecurity has become a matter of urgency.

Food insecurity is on the rise in most African countries with 22.8% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa being undernourished, the highest prevalence of all regions in the world according to the World Bank’s development indicators. The continued lack of progress in agricultural productivity has been blamed for holding back the region’s overall economic growth.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for smallholder farmers, and those seeking to invest in them, with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicting that the agricultural market in Sub-Saharan Africa will grow from US$200 billion in 2015 to US$1 trillion by 2030.

Agriculture in Africa was once considered a vocation for the poor and uneducated. But perceptions of farming are changing as more people venture into it as a livelihood; around two-thirds of the labour force is now engaged in the sector, contributing to 37 per cent of GDP.

And increasingly, farmers practising subsistence agriculture are using new technologies to increase productivity and marketability. These range from using social media to connect with others in the sector, to partnering with companies that provide drone technology and remote sensing.

Africa’s population of over 1.216 billion translates to high demand for farm produce; and entrepreneurs, corporations and governments are working together to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”

To achieve this target African leadership must take on purposeful efforts to achieve high agricultural productivity. Some of the factors below are drawn from ‘Transforming Africa’s Agriculture to Improve Competitiveness’ — an analysis by the African Development Bank in the World Economic Forum’s Africa Competitiveness Report 2015.

  1. Develop high-yield crops

Increased research into plant breeding, which takes into account the unique soil types of Africa, is a major requirement. A dollar invested in such research by the CGIAR consortium of agricultural research centres is estimated to yield six dollars in benefits.

Boost irrigation

With the growing effects of climate change on weather patterns, more irrigation will be needed. Average yields in irrigated farms are 90% higher than those of nearby rain-fed farms.

Increase the use of fertilizers

As soil fertility deteriorates, fertilizer use must increase. Governments need sure the right type of fertilizers is available at the right price, and at the right times. Fertilizer education lessens the environmental impact and analysis of such training programs in East Africa found they boosted average incomes by 61%.

Improve market access, regulations, and governance

Improving rural infrastructure such as roads is crucial to raising productivity through reductions in shipping costs and the loss of perishable produce. Meanwhile, providing better incentives to farmers, including reductions in food subsidies, could raise agricultural output by nearly 5%.

Make better use of information technology

Information technology can support better crop, fertilizer and pesticide selection. It also improves land and water management, provides access to weather information, and connects farmers sources of credit. Simply giving farmers information about crop prices in different markets has increased their bargaining power. Esoko, a provider of mobile crop information services, estimates they can boost incomes by 10-30%.

Adopt genetically modified (GM) crops

The adoption of GM crops in Africa remains limited. Resistance from overseas customers, particularly in Europe, has been a hindrance. But with Africa’s rapid population growth, high-yield GM crops that are resistant to weather shocks provide an opportunity for Africa to address food insecurity. An analysis of more than one hundred studies found that GM crops reduced pesticide use by 37%, increased yields by 22%, and farmer profits by 68%.

Reform land ownership with productivity and inclusiveness in mind

Africa has the highest area of arable uncultivated land in the world (202 million hectares) yet most farms occupy less than 2 hectares. This results from poor land governance and ownership. Land reform has had mixed results on the African continent but changes that clearly define property rights, ensure the security of land tenure, and enable land to be used as collateral will be necessary if many African nations are to realise potential productivity gains.

Step up integration into Agricultural Value Chains (AVCs)

Driven partly by the growth of international supermarket chains, African economies have progressively diversified from traditional cash crops into fruits, vegetables, fish, and flowers. However, lack of access to finance and poor infrastructure has slowed progress. Government support, crucial to coordinate the integration of smallholder farmers into larger cooperatives and groups, may be needed in other areas that aid integration with wider markets.

Food security, however, will not be achieved simply by increasing food production; consumers need to be able to afford it. And even though many farmers are becoming aware that much more can be achieved in agriculture much still need to be done to boost production and make agricultural products cheap and accessible.