9th May 24

Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Promoting Environmental Stewardship and Resilience

By Joan Kagotho

In order to appreciate the need for sustainable agriculture in promoting environmental stewardship and resilience in Africa, we must first understand how traditional agricultural practices have affected the ecosystem and the players therein. To do that, we must understand the importance of agriculture in our society, its impact and what innovations have been adopted to promote sustainability in agriculture.

According to a study by World Bank, an estimated 70% of Africa’s population rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture is the main driving force for African development, contributing about 23% of the gross domestic product and employing almost two thirds of the population. Smallholder farmers contribute significantly to agricultural production, food security, and biodiversity conservation across sub-Saharan Africa. The smallholder farmers typically own less than 5 hectares of land, and they number around 33 million farms. This represents 80% of all farms in the region, contributing up to 80% of the food supply. They are the drivers of many African economies despite the various challenges they face in access to productive resources.

Pexel photo: Kelly

Over a long period of time, smallholder agricultural practices in Africa were largely confined to subsistence farming, dependent on the inefficient system of shifting cultivation whereby land is temporarily cultivated with simple implements until fertility decreases and then abandoned for a time to allow the soil to regenerate. These agricultural practices evolved, and farmers begun buying better variety of seeds and planting materials, incorporated use of tractors and other equipment and use of mineral fertilizers, and pesticides. However, these practices have raised concerns over their part in accelerating land degradation which in turn has led to nutrient depletion, soil erosion and low agricultural productivity.

It is therefore not surprising that agriculture has had an enormous environmental footprint, playing a significant role in causing climate change, water scarcity, land degradation, deforestation, and other environmentally degrading processes like pollution from pesticides and fertilizers. Ironically, agricultural practices are simultaneously causing these adverse changes and being impacted by the same. Case in point, according to a journal published by Naturefood in 2021, food systems are responsible for one third of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and these gas emissions according to evidence gathered by Economic Union (EU) in 2020, are on course to increase by 30%-40% by 2050 due to increase in population and dietary change.

Smallholder farmers are particularly vulnerable to weather shocks, especially those relying on traditional agricultural practices such as rain-fed agriculture. The volatile weather conditions, a hallmark of climate change, has led to a dramatic decrease in yield and production levels. Further, changes in temperature and moisture conditions have allowed for crop diseases and pests to spread and migrate into new regions. These continuous climate changes have had a negative impact on overall agricultural production threatening food and water security as well as income generation for the farmers. It is estimated that by the year 2030, approximately 120 million people will have to contend with famine, floods, and extreme heat. To combat this, Africa must embrace innovations that will help promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Sustainability encompasses environmentally friendly practices that aim to meet society’s present food and fibre needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Adoption of sustainable agricultural practices provides a potential solution to food security, reduction of poverty and preservation of the environment.

The role of technology in sustainable agriculture

In Africa, technology has emerged as a powerful tool in promoting and driving sustainable agriculture and reducing food waste. Farmers are continually adopting innovative approaches by combining scientific research with traditional knowledge thus disrupting the way traditional agriculture is done and getting us closer to realising food security, enhancing productivity, nutrition, and climate resilience. Technologies such as cloud computing, opensource software, aerial imagery from drones or satellites, improved weather forecasts, and soil sensors are providing farmers with the correct information to help improve yield and provide better farming experience.

It is also important to highlight that there are barriers to transferring high technology innovations to farmers, especially those with small to medium scale farms. This process is known as technology transfer and includes transferring information and skills to the end user. It can be hindered by poor marketing facilities, difficult terrain in remote areas, poor connectivity, and an unorganized farming community. Knowledge sharing and collaborations among stakeholders, localizing innovations, capacity building and training farmers are some of the strategies that can be employed in improving the adoption of agricultural technologies in Africa.

Innovations promoting environmental stewardship and resilience in Africa

Precision agriculture uses technologies such as GPS, remote sensing, and data analytics to optimize resource use and enhance productivity while minimizing environmental impact. This technology provides farmers with real-time data on soil moisture, nutrient levels, and crop health. Use of predictive analytics software combined with satellite or drone images of the agricultural field enables the farmer to be precise and proactive in planning for crop rotation, planting, harvesting and soil management. It is this precision in analysis and response that ultimately reduces wastage of resources, improves sustainability, and helps in controlling the environmental impact of farming operations.

One such company employing this technology in South Africa is Aerobotics. They are using drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide farmers with detailed insights into crop health, thus enabling targeted interventions and reducing chemical inputs. In Ethiopia, Debo engineering, is a startup technology company that uses recently emerging technology like Machine Learning, Internet of Things, Internet Protocol, Wireless Sensor Network, Data science, Mobile Computing and other related technologies to solve critical issues in agriculture. They have designed an application that is able to give an accurate representation of various crop diseases and also offer drone services to improve farm analysis and crop disease classification and prediction.

Precision agriculture. image courtesy of Wikifarmer

Water management technology helps optimize water usage by incorporating soil moisture sensors, weather data, and irrigation scheduling algorithms. By delivering the right amount of water at the right time, these systems save water and increase crop productivity. While innovations made in water management have made great strides, more needs to be done in the waste-water treatment innovation as it is crucial to preserving the environment. This is because wastewater typically contains toxic substances and high levels of organic matter that can be harmful to crops and soils. There have been various advancements including use of closed-loop wastewater treatment systems. This technology treats wastewater on site and recycles it back onto the crops hence reducing dependence on freshwater resources.

Water management. image courtesy of Geopard Agriculture

Bio and Emerging Technology Institute (BETIn) in Ethiopia are spearheading a project whose aim is to convert the organic matter in industrial waste into fertilizer. They observed that the sludge generated every day after wastewater treatment is often times discharged into the environment without proper waste management, thus causing serious environmental problems. They are converting the sludge to nano-fertilizers through zeolites formation and a composite formed with nitrogen and phosphorus from agro-waste.

Zeolites are non-toxic, environmentally friendly and affordable materials that can easily be synthesized. Nano fertilizer is then prepared from the industrial waste sludge and manufactured into an innovative zeolite-encapsulated nano fertilizer blend. Because nano fertilizers release nutrients gradually for more than 30 days, there is an increase in nutrient absorption and use without negative side effects to the environment. The team is working with smallholder farmers on how to use the fertiliser to improve their soil fertility, increase crop productivity, reduce environmental degradation, and decrease the cost and consumption of fertilisers.

Conservation agriculture incorporates techniques such as minimal tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, and regenerative agriculture. These practices help improve soil health, reduce erosion, and enhance water retention, making farms more resilient to climate change. Itanya Africa Group based in Kenya are working to prioritize regenerative farming practices that work in harmony with nature by promoting biodiversity, improving soil health and enhancing the ecosystem resilience. They are able to achieve this by capacity building and educating farmers on regenerative practices. They are working to establish demo farms to provide practical experiences for the farmers around Kenya thus improving adoption of these techniques among small holder farmers.

Conservation agriculture. Image courtesy of Wageningen University and Research

By embracing, adopting and implementing innovations such as conservation agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, efficient water management, and farmer education on regenerative agricultural practices, we can promote sustainable farming systems and revolutionize farm management. Smallholder farmers who continually embrace and adopt these advancements are able to enhance their resilience towards climate change, protect natural resources and improve their livelihoods for generations to come.

At Agri Frontier, we have over ten years of experience offering expertise and guided support in steering businesses towards climate-smart growth, sustainability, and resilience. We specialize in offering SMEs In East and West Africa affordable, personalized, and relevant services through our Consulting and Growth Hub divisions whilst leveraging on our expansive networks across Africa.

Contact Joan at jkagotho@agrifrontier.com.

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