by LUKE METELERKAMP
JOHANNESBURG – RECENT years have seen a rapid proliferation of tech-incubators and start-up acceleration programme in Africa. Many are agriculturally focused.
While the efficacy of this incubation boom is under the spotlight, ag-tech innovation is heating up. With this, agricultural entrepreneurs and tech-startups are faced with a difficult decision: do they follow the easy money by replicating industrial systems or attempt to leap-frog towards just and sustainable solutions for Africa’s food system?
The high-tech agricultural operations in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are often a source of envy. Although industrial value chains appear productive, profitable and efficient, here are four reasons this is not a model ag-tech innovators should be seeking to emulate without adjustments.
It’s a weak business proposition. Using conventional economic metrics, OECD agriculture fails as a viable business proposition. The EU which spends 60 billion Euro every year keeping its farmers in business. That is three times as much as Europe spends annually on development aid to all of Africa. It is also likely to have huge knock-on costs for the health sector.
Again, it will make Africa sick. Modern agriculture has provided unprecedented variety and stability to much of the world, but modern agricultural monocultures and their associated supermarket value chains of highly-processed calorific-foods are driving a health crisis.
In 2017, the costs of diabetes treatment in the US amounted to US$ 327 billion – almost four times the total profits made by all American farmers that year. This constitutes a sophisticated looting of public health coffers by the big agri-food industry. For African policy makers, embracing American-style agro-industrial practices is not only likely to unleash a continental health crisis, but it would also be an exceptionally bad economic decision that creates profits for the few, through a hidden tax on the majority.
At the same time, it’s based on a false narrative. ‘It is better to be diabetic than hungry’ many would protest. But alas, if only it were true that producing more food would feed the hungry. It is a rather unpalatable fact, that despite hunger, humanity produces far, far too much food. Globally there are twice as many overweight people as there are underweight people and, we waste 30 per cent of all food produced.
In spite of over-consumption and wastage, we still have a lot left over. Sadly, these food surpluses do not find their way to hungry stomachs. Instead, surpluses are largely pumped into cars in the form of biofuels, or into a monumental global factory-line of caged animals destined for the shopping carts of an increasingly wasteful and over-fed middle-class.
Unless we fundamentally change by whom and how food is produced, further increasing global food production will not solve hunger. It will only deepen our obesity crisis, accelerate environmental loss and increase the volume of animal products consumed by the rich and middle classes.
It has been ecological disaster. Using true-cost accounting standards, the 20th century model of commercial agriculture is completely economically unviable almost everywhere. Whether considering its green-house gas emissions, the destruction of the Central African rain forests, or huge oceanic dead-zones as a result of fertilizer run-off, the ethics and economics simply don’t add up.
Acknowledging the points above does imply that the widespread survivalist model of farming for $1-2 per day is something we should be content with. But, what it does imply, is that unlike most of Europe and North America, at least the majority of African farmers are making an honest (albeit small) profit without fuelling the climate crisis.
The question ag-tech innovators should be asking is: What it would mean to avoid replicating failing industrial models of food production onto Africa, in order to leap-frog the continent into something truly just and sustainable? Nobody really has the answer. However, for those keeping an eye out for useful solutions bubbling out of Africa’s ag-tech incubators, there are five things we can be fairly sure of.
It’s important to keep things short and fragmented. Short supply-chains and vibrant territorial food markets will play a central role in promoting wellbeing, sustainability, and good livelihoods along the length of Africa’s food value-chains. Technological innovations need to improve supply-chain efficiency.
We should ask how? Not how much? The overall quantity of food produced needs to become increasingly secondary to metrics on the ecological how and the socioeconomic by whom of production. This means true solutions will not be driven by big projects specializing in a small number of commodities. Rather, solutions will focus on achieving incremental gains across a wide base of producers, processors, and informal-economy retailers.
Deepening knowledge and strengthening networks is key. Improved access to knowledge and networks, rather than access to chemicals and credit, will become the primary cornerstone of sustainable solutions. As the primary interest of the world’s large agrochemical companies is first and foremost to build sales channels for their products, most game changing innovations will need to leverage core funding from elsewhere in order to stay true to purpose.
Solving from within works well. Increased investments into agriculture will need to be matched with tech-solutions which better enable people to solve problems from within: Multiplying the impact of the knowledge, equipment, and capital they already have at their disposal.
Finally, there’s money and more. Start-ups must remember that irrespective of wealth levels, people are motivated by more than just profit. Their solutions need to reflect a blend of capitalist, wellbeing, and solidarity economies.
Food system transformation is one of the great challenges of our time and for African entrepreneurs, this represents challenge and opportunity. However, as Africans, we are young and we are many, and, as the saying goes, many hands make for light work.
NB: Dr Luke Metelerkamp is a research fellow at Rhodes University and farmer based in South Africa.
– CAJ News