By Joseph Wambugu
FOR AFRICAN AGRICULTURE TO FLOURISH, HI-TECH EQUIPMENT WILL BE NEEDED
African agriculture has slowly evolved from the time when a black woman with a hoe in the hands was the default symbol of agriculture in Africa. Over the years, farmers have adopted mechanization at various levels with small agricultural equipment like the single-axle walking tractors becoming more and more popular. Depending on which country you are in, medium and large-scale farmers in Africa are moderately mechanized whereby basic farm operations like land preparation, planting, spraying, and harvesting are carried out using conventional basic mechanical machinery. Medium and large-scale farms (50 Ha and above) constitute less than 10 percent of the total agricultural land. In Kenya for instance, agriculture is predominantly small-scale and is carried out on farms averaging 0.2-3 Ha mostly on a subsistence basis. In Nigeria, over 80% of farmers are small family farms averaging 0.5 Ha, and there are very few large-scale farm operations. With this in mind, any conversation on mechanization should never leave small-scale farmers behind.
Innovations in agricultural mechanization are advancing at high speed to cater to the pressing need to intensify food production to feed an ever-increasing global population and at the same time take care of the environment. This high speed of technological developments cannot be compared to the rate of mechanization adoption in Africa. If you dare to compare, you might conclude that Africa has been in a status quo for the past six decades with regard to the level of new technologies adoption more so in agricultural machinery. African farmers buy machinery that have the old-school innovations. It is a good thing that Africa is gradually moving away from hand tools and animal power. However, for mechanization to propel Africa to the next level of industrialization and economic growth, there is need to embrace hi-tech equipment and machinery that do not only replace human muscle and animal power with engine, but also enhance productivity with minimum environmental impact.
By definition, hi-tech could mean a lot of things when it comes to agricultural machinery. In tractors, for example, technologies such as the modern Cab provides a convenient working environment to the operator who spends over 8 hours per day driving the machine. The cab is also the center that houses many controllers and data systems upon which precision farming relies. Other self-propelled equipment such as combine harvesters and sprayers use modern cabs to optimize their use. .
When it comes to planters, Hi-tech systems provide the ultimate precision including proper planting depth, singulation, variable rate control, and spacing…etc. Studies and field experiments have confirmed that precise planting depth management could improve yield by up to 20% through uniform and timely grain emergence. All factors held constant, farm yield is determined during planting, a phase in which many farmers fail terribly in Africa. A successful planting application may not be easy to achieve using manual equipment. As a matter of fact, precision planting is an outcome of continuous field data collection and analysis. Only hi-tech equipment would allow farmers to continuously collect and collate data for decision-making.
With hi-tech machinery, it is possible to enable many more digital farming products such as fleet management software, auto-guide, GPS, yield mapping tools among others that allow remote and real time access of machine data hence enabling farmers make informed decisions that improve operational and production efficiency.
Such smart-machines are what African farmers will require in order to bridge the current yield gap estimated at 24-80% less than the global average. Hi-tech machines are not necessarily the biggest equipment in the market, no. Manufacturers such as Massey Ferguson have hi-tech enabled in some of their low and medium horsepower tractors that fit well to the African smallholder farming ecosystem. Also, Massey Ferguson offers a range of 4-row planters that are equipped with precision planting technology and could adopt well with smallholder farmers in Africa.
Role of contractors in providing hi-tech machinery solutions to farmers
Paradox: African farmers need to use agricultural machinery but they do not have the purchasing power. Machinery contractors, be they private sector or state incentivized have tried hard over the past years to bring the last-mile access to mechanization but very little has been achieved. Since majority of African farmers operate at a small scale level, machinery contracting naturally becomes a difficult business because of the lack of economies of scale. Economies of scale is a key cost-saving approach in the machinery contracting business.
Fast forward, most private contractors and governments always purchase standard equipment (low horsepower mechanical tractors) and conventional equipment. From my observation, smallholder farmers sometimes seek and pay for mechanization services from these contractors, but at the end of the season, their investment does not translate into improved yields. I still believe that farmers are ready to pay any amount to a contractor who offers value-added services other than just a mere replacement of muscles with an engine.
In Germany for instance, farmers are very demanding in terms of technology. They purchase mechanization services from contractors who offer a variety of equipment that enhance yield output. That explains why German contractors are the first adopters of mechanization innovations. They evolve almost at the same speed as the manufacturer. In this case, African governments and contractors must consider hi-tech equipment instead of the normal ones that add very little value to the farmer.
The dilemma of bringing hi-tech agricultural equipment to Africa lies in the fact that, the upfront cost of such equipment could be far beyond reach for smallholders. Therefore introducing hi-tech agricultural equipment in Africa could be easier said than done. It would require a systemic approach in close collaboration between stakeholders notably manufacturers, distributors, governments, and contractors to prepare the continent to use such equipment (training, local assembly, seamless supply chains, aftersales support, etc).
If we agree on this, then we can start the conversation on how and when.
Things that appear small can make a huge difference in yield! Smart machine farming increases yield, reduces cost, reduces risks, increases machine uptime and save resources.
Joseph Wambugu is a Sales Specialist of Agricultural Machinery.