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Advertorial: Harnessing 4IR technologies to increase agricultural production in Africa

Written by Dr Moses Cho

Despite the stereotypical images of starving African populations, the continent in fact has the ability not only to feed itself, but also to be a major player in the global food market. This potential lies in its land, people, waterbodies, knowledge and huge markets. With about 375 million hectares of Africa's land considered suitable for agricultural production, it makes sense that agriculture dominates most African economies.

Currently a large number of countries on the continent rely on agriculture to meet priorities such as eradicating poverty and hunger and to increase intra- Africa trade. However, owing to the low yields from outdated agricultural practices and the effects of climate change, many nations face ongoing food insecurity.

With 20% of the more than 821 million undernourished people in the world living in Africa, it cannot be business as usual if the continent is to feed its projected population of two billion people by 2050.

While challenges exist and are real, there are also many opportunities. As the old adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, the emerging technologies of the 4th industrial revolution (4IR) are that silver lining.

4lR pillars such as big data and the Global Positioning System (GPS) can make a significant difference in farming, particularly with information about the location of farms. The thousands of ground sensors and social media platforms also assist with knowledge and data sharing. Big data analytical tools present invaluable opportunities to use data to address agricultural challenges, for example, in deciding which crops to plant, and when.

The benefits of greater connectivity, the Internet of Things and robotics provide us with unique prospects for leapfrogging traditional agricultural practices into a new era of smart agriculture. As the holder of 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land, Africa should step up its game and develop homegrown technologies that can respond to the challenges faced by the agriculture sector, both on the continent and globally.

In South Africa, the Department of Science and Innovation's 20 I 9White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation has positioned the national system of

innovation to respond to poverty, inequality and unemployment in the country. In simple terms, the White Paper looks at how science, technology and innovation can change people's lives, influence service delivery, modernise the production sector and grow the economy. It has a focus on new technologies and how they can be used to create jobs and wealth, and ultimately take our country to the next level.

The Agriculture Research Council (ARC), the Department of Science and Innovation and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research have already developed numerous technologies and, where appropriate, commercialised them to boost agriculture. One of these technologies, the Agricloud app developed by the ARC, is helping farmers to generate real-time personalised forecasts and warnings, reducing weather and climate-related risks and improving food production in a sustainable manner The app is free and available on Google Store.

Another locally produced technology developed by the ARC,the Viridi Elisa Kit, is a plant health diagnostic tool that assists farmers with the identification of different vegetable diseases, such as the tomato spotted wilt and cucumber mosaic viruses. South Africa has many valuable locally produced technologies on the market, including precision agriculture platforms, soymilk pasteuriser and sweet potato cultivars, to name only a few.

The predicted increase in the youth population presents another opportunity for the agriculture sector. United Nations statistics predict an increase in the number of young people (aged 15 to 24) from 1,2 billion in 2015 to 1,3 billion by 2030. Most of them will be born in developing countries in Africa and Asia, where more than half of the population still live in rural areas. It is expected that young Africans will make up some 42% of the world's youth.

The introduction of 4IR technology in agriculture presents an ideal opportunity to involve youth in the sector, since young people are among the biggest consumers of new technology. The declining interest of youth in the sector is seen as one of the challenges that could hinder the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 2—ending hunger by 2030.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's 20 l4 "The State of Food and Agriculture" report, youth in rural areas continue to face challenges related to unemployment, underemployment and poverty. The agriculture sector has ample potential to provide income-generating opportunities for them. Attracting young people to the sector will also help to meet the increasing demand for food from a growing global population — projected to reach nine billion by 2050.

The current environment offers governments on the continent a chance to harness new technologies and involve large numbers of the youth to take agriculture in Africa into the digital era. This will not only increase crop yields, but also contribute to economic development, increase competitiveness and attract investment. Moreover, it will ensure food security and the elimination of poverty.

Cho is Research Group Leader for Precision Agriculture at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, an   entity of  the  Department of Science and Innovation