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Digital Technology Shaping the Future of African Agriculture


With an exponentially increasing human population coupled with diminishing arable land, agriculture will need to keep evolving, balancing future demand and supply sustainably. Growth in agricultural productivity will need to continue in order to meet the challenge of continually increasing output while improving use efficiencies of inputs such as nutrients, water and labor.

Research and development into the further integration of digital technology and agricultural productivity continues with researchers and manufacturers looking for new ways to utilize ever increasing computing power and more accurate sensors. It seems it’s only a matter of time before a vast majority of agricultural tasks could be carried out by autonomous robots and all crop plants are monitored and managed on an individual basis.1

Digital technology has found its way into agriculture with the development of various technologies ultimately aimed at increasing productivity. While early pieces of equipment included area counters, seeder blockage monitors and harvester grain loss monitors, it was the development of the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) which allowed the semi-automation of various farming vehicles, and in conjunction with developments in electronic sensor technology, has seen the development of technological revolution in agriculture, referred to as “Precision Agriculture”.

Precision Agriculture Applications:

With today’s Precision Agriculture, GPS-steered tractors can apply fertilizer and water to seeds with sub-inch accuracy. Farmers can be as exacting with the amount and timing of the application. A network of underground soil sensors can continuously measure moisture, temperature and nutrient data and transmit the information wirelessly back to a central computer. The iPod-size sensors will help farmers reduce fertilizer usage, because water and temperature provide clues to how nitrogen and carbon are cycling through soil. Sensors can be used to scan for things like fungus and growth rates, and to monitor soil moisture, humidity and light levels. In the future, farmers could micromanage every plant from a central station, and dispatch robots to deal with pest invasions or soil imbalances before any fruit starts dying.2

The introduction of GPS technology to agriculture has allowed the development of automatic boom section control, whereby the controller will map the areas sprayed and if any part of the boom passes over that area again the controller automatically shuts off the appropriate sections of the boom. As with Autosteer technology, this technology reduces overlap and operator fatigue, particularly with larger booms and irregularly shaped fields.

Integrating farm management information systems can meet the challenges of the farm of tomorrow to support real-time management decisions and compliance to standards. New technologies can be used to better manage African farms through the collection and transmission of data in real-time, across networks. It can also develop a standardized platform for this data, taking into consideration how advances in robotics technology can be effectively introduced into farming systems. This is integrated with analysis on how future agricultural developments will impact the entire African community.3

An application of precision agriculture is Re-mapping Africa project. This project, executed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to increase in per-capita food yields in sub-Saharan Africa, by gathering extensive data on land use to better target new farming technologies. Through this project potential African farmers can increase yields, by gathering and merging data, and archiving government surveys on household composition and climate information, in order to map crop potential and theoretical models of development patterns. The goal is to create a complete virtual library of Africa’s agricultural systems. As the data pours in, maps are generated, layered with information and produces simulations of how different solutions might play out.4

Meanwhile, NASA has teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use its Aqua satellite to monitor soil moisture around the globe. Crop yields are determined in part by how much water the ground holds. The satellite collects data on the amount of microwave radiation emitted by the land, which scientists combine with information about vegetation cover and soil temperatures to figure out how much of the radiation is coming from water in the soil. The USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service is using the data to help form more-accurate crop forecasts for the U.S. and for developing countries, where ground data is often sparse. In 2013, the project will get a boost from the Soil Moisture Active and Passive satellite, which will provide information at a much more detailed scale.5

Into The Future of Precision Agriculture:

Advances in digital technology and sensor systems over the past decade has resulted in a great deal of research and development of more intelligent agricultural vehicles capable of automating tasks with minimal operator input. The ultimate aim is to remove the human operator all together and have tasks completed autonomously. While most of the hardware and control systems are already a reality, issues of machine interaction with an essentially unpredictable environment still need to be addressed.

The recent results of the George Washington University, Delphi study suggest that “Precision Agriculture” will be one of the ten key breakthroughs in the next ten years. This involves the integration of satellite observations, on-the-ground instruments, and sophisticated farm machinery to maximize efficiency in food production. This will become more feasible as technological advances are made in the next ten years, and lead, it is assumed, to better food production.6

Countries such as China have demonstrated the effectiveness of agricultural research in raising productivity, while there is a strong case for reversal of the low priority accorded to research on agriculture in most African countries. Africa should be a part of this research effort as there are many operations in our farming systems which could greatly benefit from this technology. This shift must recognize that special measures will often be needed to incentivize research that produces public goods.

It has been estimated that the application of existing knowledge and technology could increase average yields two- to threefold in many parts of Africa. However, in determining where and how much to invest in producing more food, policy-makers will need to consider digital technology and its effect on evolving African agriculture, helping in effectively defining the future direction of agricultural research, and the decisions that policy makers need to take today.

New ways are required to incentivize research and development that meets the needs of African countries and where at least initial returns on investment will be low. Where incentives do not currently exist for investment in research that provides public goods, new models of delivery are needed to mobilize the considerable strengths of private-sector research and scientific entrepreneurship. The contribution of funders to research from the public, private and third sector needs better coordination.7

We have to discover what is actually possible with current and evolving computer technology, to see how it could fit or be adapted for African farming system. African farmers need to be made aware of this research and its potential benefits. A well informed farming community, that has already demonstrated its ability to think out of the box and become some of the most innovative and efficient farmers in the world, has the ability to effectively define the future direction of agricultural research.

Dr Nisreen Rafik Lahham
Guest Editor


Dr Nisreen Rafik Lahham
Manager of R & D Department: Egyptian Cabinet, Information & Decision Support Center
Founder and moderator: Middle East & Africa Research Center for Training and Future Studies (MEAfrica)

Read more about the author and her view on being a futurist.



1 http://www.nuffieldinternational.org/rep_pdf/1271281847James_Hassall_Report_2009.pdf
2 http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2009-07/8-farming-solution-help-stop-world-hunger?
3 http://www.nuffieldinternational.org/rep_pdf/1271281847James_Hassall_Report_2009.pdf
4 http://harvestchoice.org/regions/Bill%20and%20Melinda%20Gates%20Foundation
5 http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2009-07/8-farming-solution-help-stop-world-hunger?page=4
6 http://www.futurist.com/articles-archive/questions/future-of-agriculture/
7 http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/11-546-future-of-food-and-farming-report.pdf


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