Harnessing technology to revolutionise agriculture and combat hunger and food insecurity in Africa

Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick: 13 January 2022.

Artificial intelligence can be used to combat disease and pests, while drones and other robots equipped with computer vision have the ability to collect data points from crops and monitor water stress and nutrient deficiencies.

The Covid-19 pandemic in many ways has represented a marked regression in progress. While the technological strides made have been a remarkable feat, the reality is that, for many, the lived experience has worsened significantly. Globally the past two years have been characterised by unprecedented job losses and a growing sense of despondency, leading to an increase in global poverty.

In 2015, the United Nations developed 17 goals designed to tackle the most severe and critical global challenges of our time. Termed a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envisioned a more equal and equitable future. Yet, the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021 found that across the board, the pandemic resulted in substantial setbacks to the progress of the SDGs

Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics to emerge from the pandemic has been the marked increase in hunger. Of course, the impact of climate change on reducing food availability and affecting food quality cannot be ignored. Yet, the statistics are damning. As Petra Hans, the head of agricultural livelihood at the IKEA Foundation, described it, “as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, we started to understand how fragile our food systems are. We saw news stories of food destroyed, milk dumped and crops rotting in the fields while consumers faced empty shelves. Our complicated global supply chains couldn’t adapt fast enough to our changing realities.”

According to the UN, in 2020, it was estimated that 690 million people, or 8.9% of the global population, were hungry, representing an annual increase of 10 million people and an increase of about 60 million in five years. It is projected that at the current rate, by 2030, global hunger will surpass 840 million people or 9.8% of the global population. Once zoned into Africa, the statistics indicate an obvious skewed level of access in the Global South. More than 250 million of the hungry are located in Africa, and this number is growing faster than anywhere in the world.

In South Africa, in particular, it is apparent that we are experiencing a food crisis. According to the Borgen Project, hunger has risen significantly since the start of the pandemic. More than 23% of South African households experienced hunger in the last quarter of 2020. The National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) found that nearly 2.5 million adults and 600,000 children were experiencing “perpetual hunger” or hunger every day in 2021. This is unsurprising when we consider that unemployment has reached historic highs, making South Africa among the worst off in the world.

How do we begin to address this to ensure that we reverse the devastating gains of the past two years? Of course, at one level, there are institutional solutions in place. For example, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), R10-million is spent on a meal assistance programme that ensures that more than 2,000 students are given two decent meals daily. A further R600,000 is spent on an additional feeding scheme for students in need. We are aware of the devastating impact hunger can have on our students, who are often unable to perform academically.

While these are important interventions, our focus must be redirected to more extensive global solutions. Furthermore, at UJ we are expanding our food gardens to increase the production of food to combat student hunger. It is thus essential that we use our vast spaces as agricultural production sites to fight hunger.

Here, the advanced technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) certainly have a part to play in addressing food insecurity. As Sir Charles Godfray from Oxford University argued in a 2019 World Economic Forum white paper, “many of these potentially disruptive alternatives enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution come with big promises – from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to transforming nutrition and health”.

Global Food Security indicates that countries such as Singapore, Finland, Germany and Japan, which are among the leading countries in food security, have placed emphasis on technological solutions. The prioritisation of engineering, technologically driven agricultural practices and economic principles has driven this phenomenon.

For instance, in the agricultural sector, AI can be used to combat disease and pests, while drones and other robots equipped with computer vision have the ability to collect data points from the farms’ existing crops. The South African start-up Aerobotics develops drone technology used in the agricultural, logistical and mining industries. This allows farmers to scan their farms and provide analytics in order to manage their farms more efficiently, thereby reducing costs and increasing yields. Its AI system assists farmers in optimising the utilisation of farms and in decreasing monthly water, fertiliser and diesel costs.

The ThirdEye project in Kenya uses RGB cameras and near-infrared cameras mounted on drones to surveil and diagnose the plants for pests and diseases, water stress and nutrient deficiencies. Elsewhere, we are seeing the emergence of alternative protein sources that are substitutes for traditional animal-based food. For example, meat can be produced in laboratories without the use of live animals. There is also scope to produce products that partially substitute meat.

What is apparent is that in order to get back on track with the Sustainable Development Goals, which UN secretary-general António Guterres has admitted were “already off track even before Covid-19 emerged”, technological solutions have to be readily adopted. Solutions such as aid programmes and funding schemes are merely Band-Aids for what can be termed a national and indeed a global crisis. There is a fundamental need to pivot long-term and sustainable solutions, which can and should be infused with the technological leaps we have made in recent years.

After all, as the biologist Norman Borlaug put it: “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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