The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its Potential Applications in Agriculture in Africa

Agriculture plays a crucial role in the African economy and the daily lives of the majority of Africans.

The continent has 65 percent of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, an abundance of fresh water and about 300 days of sunshine each year. More than 60 percent of Africa’s working population is engaged in agriculture accounting for a third of the continent’s GDP. However, the sector is plagued by the use of outdated methods and tools, hence the need for rapid modernization.

Agricultural development has been hailed as one of the key tools that can be used for ending extreme poverty, thus boosting shared prosperity and feeding a projected global population of 9.7 billion people by 2050. The potential for growth this sector brings in terms of raising incomes among the poorest population does not come without a cost. Modern agriculture is responsible for an enormous share of environmental degradation, leading to the deterioration of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, depleting water resources, and driving climate change. The modern food production practices employed to feed 7.6 billion people are responsible for 26 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, 32 percent of terrestrial acidification, 78 percent of eutrophication, and two-thirds of freshwater withdrawals.

Africa is expected to experience a population boom by 2050, doubling its current population of 1.2 billion to more than 2 billion. Considering that current food production practices employed across the continent are unsustainable and unaffordable, Africa is missing an opportunity to be self-sustaining and to even export food. Furthermore, climate change disproportionally affects the continent, making the need for transformation even more urgent. If Africa is to mitigate these roadblocks, its agriculture needs to be modernized through the contribution of technologies that fall under the auspices of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The term 4IR encompasses a range of new, emerging and disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Drones, to name a few. It further provides revolutionary methods of organization, production and distribution based on digital transformation and automatization that can erase limits between physical objects, turning them into a comprehensive, complex system of interconnected and interdependent elements. Hence, these technologies have the potential to have a positive impact on the productivity and profitability of the agricultural sector and the creation of new locally based added value, especially in Africa.

Use cases of IoT, Big Data and AI applications on farms already exist and are set to transform farming by allowing smart and precise agriculture, which yields more productivity and profitability. IoT devices collect data that can help farmers efficiently manage their farms. Field sensors connected to the IoT can record information regarding soil moisture and nutrient levels, leading to improvements in water usage from efficient irrigation systems, determine custom fertilizer blends based on soil profiles and determine the optimal time to plant and harvest. Furthermore, IoT sensors can eliminate the need for manual monitoring in greenhouses as the completely controlled environment can be adjusted to change temperature, humidity, light levels and carry out automatic irrigation. IoT applications can also be used to monitor the health, reproductive cycle and location of livestock.

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Likewise, Big Data and AI can help farmers gain access to complex information that can inform farming decisions. AI increases the value of collected data by analyzing and converting it into information to support farm management decision-making. It can be applied at a range of magnitudes from converting data collected on individual animals and plants to the level of an entire farm by presenting information for crop planning and monitoring. Big Data and AI offer agriculture improved allocation and reproduction costs via targeted allocation of inputs such as fertilizer and chemical application.

Blockchain, on the other hand, can improve traceability, increase producers’ earnings and secure contracts and transactions in agriculture. It also has the potential to create financial incentives for ecologically and economically beneficial production practices. In the case of introducing increased transparency into agricultural supply chains, a Blockchain can assist in providing an immutable record (traceability) from the provenance to the retail store of a product. Furthermore, Blockchain can help increase earnings of producers in agriculture by providing better monitoring of their inventory and simplifying their food value chain, resulting in greater income for the farmers. A Blockchain by design in cryptographically secure and can help secure contracts and transactions, namely in land registration and agricultural insurance.

Drone technology supports numerous major applications for agriculture, such as crop scouting and monitoring, crop volume and vigor assessments, crop inventory, precision spraying, inspection of farm infrastructure, generation of prescription maps, high-resolution mapping and surveying of individual fields, crop damage assessment and insurance claim forensics. By scanning a crop using both visible and near-infrared light, drone-carried devices can identify which plants reflect different amounts of green light and near-infrared light. This information can produce multispectral images that track changes in plants and indicate their health. Farmers can therefore monitor crops for disease, and in the case of damaging weather events, document losses more efficiently for insurance claims. Drones can also be used to monitor livestock remotely and potentially improve profits via timely monitoring, negating the need for physical inspections.

Tambourine Innovation Ventures (TIV) co-authored a report for the African Development Bank (AfDB) titled “Potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa” which identifies the potential opportunities and obstacles for the application of 4IR technologies across a range of sectors, including agriculture.