The current health crisis has reignited multiple concerns around food security, particularly regarding food preservation and storage. These fears have been exacerbated as we witness the reduction of offtake, consequently decreasing the demand for certain food produce. However, multiples solutions are being implemented and this article will delve deeper into solutions that leverage existing technology in innovative ways to increase productivity, widen purchasing channels and decentralize production systems. These solutions have helped businesses stay afloat amidst the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such it is important that more firms leverage technology and innovation to allow them to effectively adapt to shocks in the market.
Cold Chain Technology
New technologies focused on improving the logistical demands required to attain food security include the implementation of cold chain technology, extensive data analytics by input suppliers, and drones in agriculture. Cold chain technology is an essential step to improving the efficiency of food distribution channels; this is particularly salient in Africa as many regions have limited access to electricity; thus, large amounts of food (and therefore money) is wasted through post-harvest losses.
According to the FAO, the lack of access to cold chain facilities in sub-Saharan Africa leads to losses estimated at “25-30 percent for animal products and 40-50 percent for roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables”. Companies such as Inspirafarms have positioned themselves as a potential solution. Founded in 2012 by Zimbabwean Tim Chambers and an Italian agronomist, InspiraFarms provides “small and growing agribusiness in the developing world with the tools, technology and expertise to significantly reduce food losses and energy costs.” The company is a first-mile cooling technology distribution and financing
company supporting businesses in east and southern Africa. Their services are leveraged by
agribusinesses dealing with fresh produce.
We also see existing companies venture into new operations as a result of this. Businesses such as Gricd, a Nigeria-based technology company providing cooling solutions primarily for healthcare and medical supplies, are now pivoting their business models. Gricd is currently looking to partner with agribusinesses as part of their delivery models, in which they will provide the cooling technology needed to keep the food supply fresh while delivering to retailers and consumers.
By now, most businesses in this market have realized that buying and operating machinery such as cold chain technology can be a considerable expense that many cannot afford. A common trend aimed at addressing this issue has been the uptick in operational partnerships to address gaps in their business models and provide complementary services to consumers. For example, InspiraFarms and Twiga’s partnership has allowed thousands of farmers cool and ripen produce using InspiraFarms cold storage units at a Twiga-owned warehouse in Nairobi. Other businesses like ColdHubs, a Nigerian company that
develops solar-powered refrigeration units, have various initiatives such as a PAYG model, allowing farmers and retailers to store their produce without taking on the energy cost.
Drone technology has become a popular topic among the agriculture and technology enthusiastic. Drones equipped with sensors allow farmers to monitor their crop health in real-time, and if equipped with sprayers, unmanned drones can treat problem areas while avoiding the overuse of chemicals. Drones are more efficient in this regard than vehicles and machinery. Beat Drone, a Nigerian start-up, utilizes drone and online application technology to assist in various farming activities. Despite their recent start, they have been contracted by a Nigerian State Government to help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The firm uses drones as a spraying tool on farms to engage in crop supervision, map farmland to improve agricultural
yields, and reduce labour dependencies. On the company’s platform, a farmer can request a
drone, schedule a date, and make payments before deploying drones for tasks like
crop counting and mapping.
Machine Learning & Data Analytics
Information services are vital as farmers, like most professions, need to be able to plan ahead.
Companies like Apollo, a Kenya-based agritech business, are useful aids. Apollo supports farmers as they transition from subsistence to commercial farming by providing fertilizers, seeds, chemicals, and insurance and financing services. Apollo’s use of machine learning and data analytics allows the company to scale components of the agriculture production process from data collection and verification to accessing creditworthiness, customer onboarding, developing farmer-specific credit models and loan repayments and/or collections schedules.
While e-commerce is not new, it has proven to be an essential aspect of agribusiness operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic. E-commerce allows for broader access to goods through partnerships with digital payment platforms. It also provides at-home delivery, even during the physical movement restrictions. Thus, many traditional businesses are shifting to e-commerce models to fulfil consumer demand. A few notable companies in this space are Farmcrowdy and Flutterwave. Farmcrowdy is Nigeria’s first digital agriculture platform that provides a selling market for rural farmer’s produce.
Flutterwave has started an e-commerce platform portal for African merchants to create an online marketplace with no inventory or warehouse requirements. The company accelerated the development of its e-commerce platform in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has imposed restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies. For pick-up and delivery, Flutterwave leverages existing third-party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria. The service has launched in 15 African countries and will be free both for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods. The only fees Flutterwave charges currently are on payments.
3D printing is a practical tool that can be implemented by agribusinesses and service providers. 3D Printing is a method that allows businesses to change what they produce on short notice. It has been vital in addressing PPE (personal protective equipment) demand where there have been gaps in price gouging as a result of the pandemic. In Kenya, a group of Kenyan-owned 3D printers, including Ultra Red Technologies, use open-source prototypes to print plastic face shields aimed at filling the supply gap before established plastic manufacturers could create a mold and begin producing quickly at affordable prices. Innovations such as this can be adapted for the agriculture and food sector. For instance. future usage could be for manufacturing spare parts and making spare parts for repair to equipment at a low cost
Different and dynamic restrictions force businesses to adapt quickly, and this is often a challenging process. Moving forward, the tools and services developed to handle this pandemic ought to be used in a more widespread fashion across businesses. It is expected that there will be future shocks that disrupt trade and production. However, these disruptions to the supply chain have also seen the development and use of more flexible forms of payment, labour, and production. Firms must adapt their business models accordingly in order to thrive in this new climate