Adesuwa Ifedi is the Senior Vice President, Africa Programmes, for Heifer International. In this interview with David Ijaseun, she spoke on the transformation of Africa’s agriculture, which she said hinged on harnessing the creative powers of the continent’s young population and combining this with the limitless powers of technology to reimagine farming and agribusinesses. Ifedi also explained how Heifer International has walked the talk by increasing support for young innovators who are leveraging Agtech solutions to solve challenges faced by smallholder farmers in Africa.
Heifer has emerged valuable partner for youth using Agtech to solve problems as seen during AGRG 2023. What was the key to this success?
For young agripreneurs, trust is essential when they consider partnerships that help them scale their Agtech innovations and ensure that they are used effectively to sustainably improve lives and incomes of communities. Heifer International has been around for 79 years, building impactful and sustainable development projects across the world. In Africa, for 49 years, we have worked closely with communities to enable them improve incomes and food systems.
Our work with smallholder farmers and communities for close to five decades in Africa has provided a unique mutual learning process, and this has not only helped us learn the peculiar challenges they face across regions, but also continuously provides insights to bespoke solutions that power them to increased outputs and earnings.
What is the place of Artificial Intelligence and other emerging technologies in agriculture in the 21st Century Africa?
Agtech is at the centre of a revolution in agriculture globally, and our investments in customising and making it more affordable for African smallholder farmers is yielding impressive benefits. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, UAVs for agriculture, data management, biotech, etc. will help build a sustainable increase curve in Africa, as has been seen globally. It is early days, but we are already seeing the immense possibilities.
The major drivers of this revolution are the millions of innovators that Africa is blessed with. Having successfully unlocked the limitless powers of technology to drive improved payment systems in the continent, these young innovators are increasingly channelling their creativity and technological knowhow to solving challenges in agriculture and across other sectors. Heifer International believes that the future of Africa’s agriculture hinges on creating opportunities for young African innovators to transform the agricultural landscape and provided them with the innovative capital they require to ensure that their innovations are designed and customised to achieve greater impact, while being sustainable and scalable. This is a major focus for us, and we have invested millions of dollars annually to power these youths to create sustainable impact and have desired careers.
In some cases, our partnership with these young innovators have enabled them to unlock commercial capital, leading to a more thriving agribusiness ecosystem that is creating jobs and attracting more youths. One illustration of this is our mechanisation project.
Can you speak to us on any of your latest innovation tools that is helping others at the moment?
One of our signature initiatives to identify and support young Agtech innovators in the continent is our AYuTe Africa Challenge. With an annual investment of over $1.5million, we are able to award cash grants to support promising young innovators across Africa who are using technology to reimagine farming, food production, and agribusiness in the continent. One of the winners of this initiative, Hello Tractor, identified poor mechanisation in Africa as their challenge and identified innovative application of technology to solve this problem. Heifer worked with Hello Tractor to design the Pay-As-You-Go (P.A.Y.G) tractor financing service to facilitate affordable tractor rental services to smallholder farmers via a tech platform that enables ease of access for beneficiaries, ease of monitoring/support/monetisation for tractor owners, and effective monitoring. We also provided seed funding totalling $4.5 million so far to Hello Tractor, enabling them scale to more countries and also leading to the unlocking of commercial capital. So far, this project has served 21,048 smallholder farmers, leading to 10,839 farmlands mechanised and 18,104 farmers with increased incomes. And there are more examples like this. The AYuTe Africa Challenge is our flagship initiative for identifying and partnering with these young innovators, but there are others. The hundreds of entries we receive yearly from these initiatives is not only proof of the trust that these young builders have for Heifer International, but also serves to encourage more innovators to get into the ecosystem. On our part, we will continue to seek stakeholder partnerships, especially funding, that will power these young innovators to scale, which in turn boost smallholder farmers’ outputs, and generate appreciable social return on investment for all partners.
Mechanisation is an ambitious one. How is Heifer’s programme able to tackle the institutional challenges around this?
As we see more investment in the African tech ecosystem, an increasing number of youths are choosing careers in tech. Google’s Africa Developer Report 2021 put the total number of professional developers in the continent at 716,000, a 3.8percent YoY growth over the preceding year. As these numbers increase, and we see the tremendous growth of tech-enabled solutions to problems in the continent, more innovators get ambitious with applying the limitless powers of tech to tackling challenges previously seen as unsurmountable. Mechanisation of farmlands across Africa is one of such challenges.
Africa is the least mechanised of all continents globally; with 13 tractors per hectare of arable land, compared to a global average of 200 tractors per hectare. This has stifled productivity for decades. The major impediments are smallholder farmers’ inability to afford tractors (average price of a small tractor is $90,000), their lack of access to equipment financing, and a technical knowledge deficiency. The Heifer/Hello Tractor program identified the need for smallholder farmers to be able to maximise output per hectare of farmed land, thereby strengthening food systems in the continent and ending hunger, so we applied tech to boost mechanisation to drive this, starting with three pilot countries – Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.
The Hello Tractor app, is a marketplace that enables smallholder farmers’ access to equipment, enhances profitability for equipment owners, and builds technical capacity. It works by identifying and listing equipment owners looking to rent, recruiting booking agents and establishing them as links between equipment owners to farmers’ requests for equipment leasing, providing financiers with the ability to calculate returns, etc. The results so far have been impressive and encouraging: 21,520 direct beneficiaries (including farmers, tractor owners, booking agents and operators), 129,111 indirect beneficiaries, over $10million in total value of benefits, and a social return on investment of 2.4, among others.
When do you think Africa will begin to see the benefit of the mechanisation you are talking about?
As this project scales to more countries, we will begin to see more of the benefits of mechanisation on, not just farmers’ incomes and communities, but its contribution to a transformed agricultural landscape. We will be able to reduce soil erosion, protect the environment, improve irrigation systems, reclaim more farmlands, increase crop production and reduce food loss more effectively.
How may different stakeholders contribute to Agtech growth?
Creating an enabling investment environment is vital for us to attract the required investments in the Agtech sector; and we are happy to see governments across the continent introduce policies aimed at achieving this. Heifer International’s focus on agriculture is because it’s a key sector for Africa’s food security, jobs creation and economic growth. Governments and policymakers are critical stakeholders as they are the chief architects of building this environment that encourages investment inflow. Our partnership with governments across the continent reinforces the vital role that increased Agtech penetration plays in transforming this sector, and thus results in improved policymaking that drives increased investment to Agtech.
Can you say the environment is favourable to encourage agricultural practice at the scale you are talking about or is it getting better?
With an increasingly favourable environment, we will see more innovators getting involved in Agtech. At Heifer, we are constantly encouraging more investment into this critical subsector by working with tech investors to unlock commercial benefits as well as social capital. The market is huge – an estimated 98percent of rural families in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in farming while a growing middle-class merges with the continent’s vast amount of arable land to create a value chain for agribusinesses. Agtech provides sustainable solutions across the ecosystem – from the farm to food processing/storage; and we are glad to see increased partnerships with tech investors looking to tap into this market.
Private sector partners are also seeing this development and are helping to unlock commercial capital for Agtech innovators. In our journey with these young innovators, we co-create their initiatives to appeal to the private sector because a key requirement for achieving scale and sustainability is their ability to quickly unlock commercial capital. This, then, makes them more attractive for profit-based partnerships with the private sector. At Heifer International, we are also seeing increased interest from global leaders in the private sector who are channelling more of their social development funds towards supporting youth-led Agtech, and our doors are always open to collaborate with these players to achieve optimum impact.
The youth – a key demography in the growing Agtech sector in Africa, is further encouraged by the ripple effects of these – ranging from unlocked career opportunities to entrepreneurship prospects across agribusinesses. For us at Heifer International, this is key because the more youths we can attract into Agtech and agribusiness, the more we are able to address the two key factors threatening Africa’s agriculture development – low technology integration and low youth interest in farming. According to the African Development Bank, 10 – 12 million young people enter the workforce every year in the continent, with only about 3.1 million formal jobs created annually. An improved Agtech sector not only creates jobs for this huge pool of talent, but also enables us make agriculture sexy and revive the waning interest of our young people in farming and agribusinesses.
Where do you see Agtech in Africa’s future and its impact on food system?
Africa has witnessed a remarkable trend of investment into the tech sector over the past decade. While the Agtech subsector still has a long way to go, the numbers seen in 2021 and 2022 are indicative of the huge potentials in this area. Data from the Africa AgriFoodTech Investment Report showed that between 2016 and 2021, Agtech startups in Africa raised $1.1 billion, with 2021 recording a 250percent YoY breakthrough at $482 million. In 2022, a record-breaking $636 million was raised.
However, early results from 2023 show a dip as data shows only $99 million raised in the first half of the year. At Heifer International, we are optimistic that long-term, investment into Africa’s agriculture future will rise above the current 1percent of global investments as more stakeholders begin to see the possibilities.
And this is why, at AGRF 2023, and everywhere we go, we will continue to lend our voice to calls for increased global attention and funding for Agtech growth in Africa. Stakeholders are increasingly seeing the opportunities with emerging technology contributing to sustainable transformed food systems, jobs creation, and improved incomes in Africa.
Adesuwa Ifedi is the Senior Vice President, Africa Programs, for Heifer International. Since 1944, Heifer International has worked with nearly 43 million people around the world to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. Working with rural communities across Africa for nearly 50 years, Heifer International supports farmers and local food producers to strengthen local economies and build secure livelihoods that provide a living income.
Ifedi has an MBA from Lagos Business School and a Postgraduate in Entrepreneurship from Boston University. She is also a Fulbright Scholar and a Hubert Humphrey Fellow from Boston University where she focused on innovation that drives development in Africa. She has also served as a member of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group’s(NESG) Human Capital Development Policy Commission from 2007 to 2018. The commission advances the NESG’s youth and gender balance issues.
At the just concluded Africa Food Systems Forum (previously known as AGRF),which held in Tanzania, Ifedi engaged stakeholders in Africa’s agriculture development on the need to increase support for youth-led innovations, use of technology, and strategic partnerships providing support for smallholder farmers and communities to increase incomes and transform the continent’s food systems. AGRF is the continent’s leading venue for agriculture stakeholders to come together and agree on practical actions to transform food systems and end hunger. This year’s summit brought together more than 3000 attendees from over 70 countries, where more than 350 experts and policymakers engaged stakeholders on ways that Africa can build back better food systems and strengthen the continent’s food sovereignty – with youth and women at the centre.