Africa needs affordable, sustainable innovation in the agricultural sector if it is to improve its food security. This is according to Dr Max Wengawenga, assistant chief economic advisor to the president of the Republic of Malawi.

While innovation and technology have been used to improve agricultural productivity over the years, his message to innovators is to come up with more user-friendly and affordable technologies to increase food productivity, even among the resource-poor farmers.

Food security has been a topic of heated debate in South Africa recently, with the proposed amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution to expedite land reform. Food security is intricately tied to a healthy and strong agricultural sector.

Definition of food security

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines food security as circumstances in which ‘all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’.

South Africa is still largely recognised as a food-secure country. Yet many people still do not have access to sufficient food. Most of these people lack the financial means to access food, making it clear that besides being able to produce food physically, a country needs sufficient economic opportunities to help reduce the number of food-insecure people. Food is a fundamental human right, and South Africa’s situation highlights that dealing with food security often goes beyond the actual production of food.

Regionally and globally, the pursuit of food security may require agricultural productivity-enhancing technologies. It may require mechanisms aimed at raising income levels for people to have the financial means to access enough quality food. It may also involve improving market systems that will enable regions with a food surplus to trade with those with a food deficit. It may even require a combination of these strategies.

The impact of innovation

In order to take advantage of the opportunities the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents to agriculture, farmers need to utilise new technologies to increase their productivity. “All stakeholders must work together in a co-ordinated approach,” says Dr Wengawenga.

Technology has already had a profound impact on agricultural productivity. Whether it relates to advances in the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence or the use of smart machines or cutting-edge science, innovation has already brought about crop varieties with higher yields, smarter use of water resources and strategies to deal with pests.

These technologies need not be the exclusive domain of resource-strong farmers. “Subsistence and emerging farmers, for instance, like being involved in the development of new technologies that address their problems,” explains Dr Wengawenga. “This offers scientists first-hand experience of real problems on the ground and not perceived challenges.”

Effects of climate change

Extreme weather events such as prolonged drought and flooding are exacerbated by a shift in rainfall patterns and regional climate changes.

As the climate shift has a negative effect on agriculture, families and communities that rely on farming for their livelihood are the first to feel the economic stress, he says. This is one of the ways in which climate change pushes people deeper into poverty, which increases the risk of social unrest and political instability.

He explains how technology can and should be implemented to help agriculture mitigate the effects of climate change. “Water harvesting techniques and suitable irrigation systems are needed to withstand the devastating effects of drought.

“Crop varieties also need to be aligned to the weather patterns. Agricultural scientists must come up with fast-maturing varieties for areas that have shorter rainy seasons and drought-resistant varieties for areas that are becoming dry.”

Dr Wengawenga believes agritech – broadly defined as the use of technology in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture to improve yield and efficiency – holds immense possibility for Africa and the world.

Dr Wengawenga will be speaking at the Agritech Africa 2020 conference in Cape Town in June 2020. – Agritech Africa 2020

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