Ensuring access to ag innovation: an African perspective

By Chibuike Emmanuel

December 19, 2018

These views were shared at a recent informal meeting hosted by the World Bank at its Washington, D.C., headquarters for some of the 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows. 

To ensure access to agricultural innovation, international stakeholders such as the World Bank Group (WBG) need to do these three things:

First:

Redefine the demography of smallholder farmers. According to FAO, the average age of farmers in Africa is 60 years. However, though agriculture has been looked down upon by young people, things are changing. For instance, agriculture is among the top three sectors selected by applicants to the Tony Elemelu Entrepreneurship Program, which grants $5,000 each to 1,000 African entrepreneurs and attracts over 100,000 entries yearly. Some 77 percent of the applicants are 18-37 years old. High youth unemployment, African nations heralding a return to agriculture and having more than 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land will only push this trend upward. This changing demographic also presents exciting dynamics. Many young farmers are educated or semi-educated. Most own cheap smartphones as Africa has the world’s largest mobile phone penetration rate. Thus, they can better adopt digitized agriculture, embrace innovation and understand the concept of agriculture as a business.

Chibuike Emmanuel in Washington, DC.

Furthermore, we need to re-imagine where this demography will live and farm. With Africa having the world’s highest urbanization rate, according to WBG, most will live in urban slums. Therefore, some will farm in urban areas, but because of costly urban real estate and poor infrastructure in rural areas, most will farm in peri-urban communities close to cities. This precipitated my research on low-cost/tech vertically integrated modular farming structures. WBG needs to start allocating some of its rural livelihood development resources to cater to these youth in urban slums and peri-urban areas. We also need to redefine the age range of the youth demographic, which is now pegged at 30-35 years. Because of circumstances beyond their control, most Africans seeking assistance can’t meet this requirement. For example, the WBG Africa Fellowship is open to PhD candidates graduating under the age of 32, which excludes the majority of graduating African PhDs. We may need to raise the age limit to 40 for men and 45 for women to retain the ingenuity of this group.

Second:

Create a buffer for risks associated with innovation. The agricultural sector is already highly unpredictable and smallholder farming is even more volatile. Interest rates charged by microfinance banks often swallow a farmer’s marginal profit. Subventions by national apex banks, such as the Central Bank of Nigeria, are hampered by bureaucracy that delays the distribution of funds. Sometimes the commercial banks through which the funds are disbursed do not even understand agricultural production cycles! This is why I am championing Peterscoin, a crowdfunding platform to help smallholder farmers raise money from the public instead of relying on banks. In carrying out a baseline survey with ag-processors we found out that they needed more patient capital, which crowdfunding may not readily address now since the concept is new and needs time to catch on. Without the value addition that the ag-processors provide, the ag sector will be like other natural resource driven sectors that have left Africa with only commodities to market. WBG can help with these patient funds by collaborating with platforms such as Peterscoin, Kiva and Farmcrowdy.

Third:

Enhance research and development, especially in the local context. WBG gives low interest loans and grants to developing nations, such as African countries. This assistance is usually accompanied by advising, consultancy and technical capacity building services. WBG can guide African nations on funding research in areas such as biotechnology, especially in the face of such threats as climate change, new pests/disease and low yield.

An example is Bt cowpea, for which Bayer donated the gene strands that allow the plants to resist the maruca pest infestation that can destroy as much as 80 percent of a farmer’s yield. Because of its limited commercial viability, cowpea will not compete with soybean, a crop that interests Bayer. Meanwhile more than 80 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line and rely on cowpea as the “poor man’s” protein while the rest of the population still enjoys different delicacies made from it. What this means is that even though multinationals may not be interested in the economics of investing in such crops, an empowered home-grown R&D — in the public or/and private sector — can fill that gap and still have enough market regionally or nationally.

In sum, I believe that deploying these strategies will help ensure access to agricultural Innovation in Africa.

Chibuike Emmanuel is a Nigerian farmer, environmentalist and development entrepreneur. He can be reached on Twitter @agricissexy or @burxymoore and on email burxymoore@gmail.com.