Africa’s young, tech-savvy “agripreneurs” are finding climate-smart farming solutions

Alex Muli presenting his agriculture pitch.

By Dr. Martin Fregene, Dr. Martin Fregene is Director for Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank.

(Cape Town, South Africa) – Alex Muli built his business growing a network of African farmers providing mango, passion fruit, avocado and French beans for sale in African and Middle Eastern markets. But in 2016, the CEO of Goshen Farms says extreme temperatures were taking an increasing toll on fruit and vegetable harvests from more than 4,200 farms he works with in water-stressed, rural Kenyan areas.

“Sometimes it is extremely hot, and sometimes it is very cold. We have never experienced that before – and those are issues of climate change that saw a reduction of 30-40% [of crop yields] from our contracted farmers. We had to find a solution for it,” Muli said.

One solution Muli brought to fields and orchards came in the form of an agriculture-targeted polymer he says retains ten times more water than soil. For example, two spoonfuls of the non-toxic belsap hydroponic crystals at the base of each Goshen Farms fruit tree, Muli said, soaks up and slowly releases moisture from rainfall and reduces irrigation costs. When soil dries up, the stored moisture triggers new plant growth. Belsap manufacturers say this reusable climate-smart technology increases crop yields.

“Mangoes are producing bigger fruit due to this climate-smart, efficient water absorption. The crystals helped our farmers increase output by 65%,” Muli said.

Thirty-three year old Muli and his polymer plan are part of a rising wave of African “agripreneurs” – tech-savvy entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector, who are attracting global attention and raising hopes that Africa could fast-track its very own “green revolution.”

Dozens of youth like Muli drew interest at a competition in South Africa, where bold agripreneurs touted everything from snail slime for beauty products, to fly larvae for protein-rich foods for human consumption.

These agripreneurs are testing climate-smart innovations that could be the key to mitigating the negative impact of climate change on the continent’s farming industries. Agriculture accounts for around a quarter of Africa’s GDP, according to statistics from the African Development Bank. More than 60% of the continent’s people rely on agriculture in some form for income. These livelihoods have become increasingly at risk over the past decade as a result of climate change.

The continent generally lacks water storage and crop irrigation infrastructure to maintain crops. That leaves African farmers largely dependent on rainfall, which is increasingly erratic. Weather modeling research indicates that, as global temperatures rise, Africa is particularly susceptible to drought, flooding and extreme weather events. Less rainfall on fields and longer periods of heat are devastating crops. Lakes serving as agricultural and livestock water resources are shrinking. The slow creep of desertification is suffocating green pastoral areas for grazing. Post-cyclone and hurricane flooding is robbing farmland of nutrients and crops that are vital for food production.

Combined, the impact of climate change on agriculture is putting hundreds of millions of Africans at risk of food insecurity. In South Africa, for example, authorities say erratic rainfall contributed to the Western Cape province’s worst drought in 100 years.

“With so many people going to bed hungry, climate-smart agriculture is no longer a luxury – it is now a vital tool for survival,” said Ivan Meyer, Western Cape province Agriculture Minister.

Famous for agricultural production and wine, the province’s apples, grapes, peaches and other fruit crops are stressed from climate change, Meyer added.

WATCH: Ivan Meyer, Agriculture Minister for South Africa’s Western Cape province, explain why climate smart agriculture is key to the “survival of humanity.”

 

Africa is home to more than half of the world’s fertile, yet unused, cropland, as well as a wealth of natural resources. However, high demand on both, coupled with climate change, has led to widespread environmental damage and loss. Many African countries have already lost a significant quantity of their soils, reducing yields and food insecurity.

Almost 200 million Africans now live on degraded land. If this continues, much of Africa’s natural capital could be squandered within a generation, leaving large parts of the continent still trapped in poverty.

But there are seedlings of hope: Muli’s climate-smart business model impressed his network of farmers and, once implemented, he says, yielded more productive crops. It also won over a judging panel of investors and agriculture specialists at the AgriPitch competition in July 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa, where Muli scored a $25,000 winner’s check.

Kenyan agripreneur and CEO of Goshen Farms Alex Muli (center) claims his climate smart agriculture-themed “AgriPitch” winner’s check.

“It is a recognition of the struggles entrepreneurs go through – the challenges [that leave you] feeling like closing the business. And when you see someone rewarding you, it is an encouragement,” Muli said after receiving the award.

The annual AgriPitch competition, part of a larger African Youth Agripreneur Forum created by the African Development Bank, has an air of the reality TV show Dragons’ Den or Shark Tank. African agripreneurs have ten minutes to pitch their climate-smart agriculture-themed projects, followed by a grilling from a panel of experts.
Twenty-five finalists were selected from over 400 applications, and went through a three-day business “boot camp” in Cape Town before facing the judges. The event was co-organized by the government of the Western Cape. The province’s Agricultural Minister Meyer was there to help distribute a total of $74,000 in cash prizes to the best climate-smart pitches.

“We created the AgriPitch competition as a way to put youth agripreneurs in real life situations – to pitch in front of our judges prepares them to make better pitches to investors,” said African Development Bank chief financial economist Edson Mpyisi, coordinator of the competition, noting that some 95% of African employment comes from small businesses, not governments or big companies.

“We hope that in the process they create jobs for themselves and employ other youth. We try to give the skills and training…to develop their businesses and link them with other sources of financial support,” Mpyisi said.

AgriPitch mature start-up category champion Muli and South African Paul Sheppard – winner of the $10,000 early start-up category prize for his Future Farms hydroponic systems – received mentoring on how to scale up their businesses. Competition organizers say the idea is to nurture startups with potential to grow and add value to African agribusiness resilience to climate change.

WATCH: South African agripreneur Paul Sheppard named as an AgriPitch competition winner

These African ambitions are drawing attention from private sector multinationals, international development agencies and Western nations like the United States, which are collaborating with some of the continent’s agripreneurs, researchers and governments.

Microsoft says Africa is fertile ground for its “AI for Earth” project, a grant program that encourages the use of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data in research areas like agriculture. Tawanda Ziki, a self-described Microsoft technology solutions professional, detailed one AI for Earth project application that uses satellite images and sensory imagery data inputs about soil moisture and temperature.
Worked into an algorithm, the climate-smart technology helps African farmers better know when to irrigate crops, reducing the risk of depleting the soil of essential nutrients. Ziki was at the forum to generate South African government and young agripreneur interest in the Microsoft grants.

“Climate-smart agriculture can help [farmers] get a better yield and use less resources,” Ziki said. “We are removing the traditional blockages that artificial intelligence is for geeks and nerds. We are democratizing artificial intelligence,” he added.

The United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, works with agricultural research centers around the world on innovations the agency says are useful in Africa. Meredith McCormack, a USAID official who was part of a forum panel, said America’s agriculture sector can learn from Africa’s quest for agribusiness development.

“There are many cases where American farmers have benefitted from [innovations] that we specifically created for an African context,” McCormack told the audience of agripreneurs, business leaders and government officials.

USAID’s Meredith McCormack (c) speaks to agripreneurs at an African Development Bank forum in Cape Town

There is a growing chorus of public and private sector calls for more preparation for extreme weather events across Africa – instead of scrambling to recover from what some say are climate-related shocks and stresses like drought and flooding.

“We are spending even more on disaster – we keep coming back and coming back, expecting a different result. We have to invest in resilience,” McCormick said during the panel session.

The path to resilience must include big data, says Parmesh Shah, the World Bank’s global lead for rural livelihoods and agricultural jobs. Africa is comparatively slow to scale up climate-smart agriculture due to a lack of reliable data at regional and national levels.

For that reason, AgriPitch competitor Zukile Malusi says climate-smart initiatives have a long way to go. Malusi, who sources and markets produce from rural African farmers, these climate smart initiatives have a long way to go. “Talk about climate change to some of these farmers, is like talking a foreign language,” Malusi said, echoing a recent Afrobarometer series of public opinion surveys in 34 African countries that determined that less than three in ten Africans are “climate change literate.”

Nigerian agripreneur Modupeolu Oyetoso went digital to increase farmer access to climate-smart agritech. Her start-up, SmartFarm, qualified for the competition finals, by demonstrating how a variant of crowd sourcing can connect investors to smallholder farms willing to adopt climate-smart agriculture technologies. SmartFarm claims investors will see a 6% to 25% return on investment, post harvest.

Nigerian Modupeolu Oyetoso makes her SmartFarm presentation to AgriPitch judges.

“There is a lot of [climate-smart] tech out there. But in Nigeria, many farmers can’t afford it,” she said, after the conference in Cape Town.

Nevertheless, the results in South Africa are promising for the continent’s agriculture sector. Western Cape province Agriculture Minister Ivan Meyer says incremental government action to mitigate the impact of climate change could be a model for the continent and beyond. The World Bank’s Shah praises the Western Cape government “for being so progressive” in closing the data gap: using satellite images to measure farm soil moisture, creating a SmartAgri online resource portal, and encouraging youth in agritech by hosting the African Youth Agripreneur Forum and AgriPitch competition, among other examples.

The provincial government has also funded conservation projects to increase crop resilience and infrastructure and equipment for a local tissue culture facility, set to boost the ability to mass produce climate-adapted and drought-resistant plants and rootstocks.
Meyer says job creation amongst the youth, particularly in agriculture, is a priority for the Western Cape government: “We will continue to invest in the youth for the love of agriculture.”


Dr. Martin Fregene

Dr. Martin Fregene is Director for Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank. With a background as a plant geneticist and molecular breeder, Fregene has over 25 years of research and development experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and the United States, as well as at two International Agricultural Research Centers: a renowned Plant Science Center in the USA and with Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Fregene served as the Chief Technical Advisor to Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and also has been an advisor to African Development Bank’s Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development. Fregene developed the first molecular genetic map of cassava, has been a recipient of over $25 million in research grants and has published over 70 scientific papers.