Neels Blom Writer at large
A new Airbus study proposes that aerospace technology such as precision farming could potentially reverse the underperformance of agriculture by enabling farmers to produce more with less, says the writer. Picture: ERWAN HESRY/UPSPLASH
A new Airbus study proposes that aerospace technology such as precision farming could potentially reverse the underperformance of agriculture by enabling farmers to produce more with less, says the writer. Picture: ERWAN HESRY/UPSPLASH

Strictly speaking, this article should be about the aerospace industry and how it could facilitate socioeconomic transformation in Africa, but it isn’t. It is about agriculture and how the aerospace industry is expected to transform farming, and it is about agriculture because socioeconomic transformation in Africa cannot happen unless agriculture is transformed.  

In the widely quoted yet unimplemented Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) prepared for Nepad  (the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and now the development agency of the AU) in the early 2000s, African agriculture was characterised as in crisis by leading agencies, the World Food Programme among others.

Very little has changed. While agriculture accounts for more than 60% of all African jobs, it contributes only about 15% of its GDP. Africa has 65% of the planet’s uncultivated arable land yet it spends $35bn a year on food imports. This is likely to rise to $110bn by 2025, as estimated in a new survey-based study commissioned by aviation company Airbus.

The researchers say the central challenge for the highly fragmented African agriculture is, therefore, one of farmer access to the satellite data and analysis

In Nepad’s framework document published more than a decade ago, it says “so deep is Africa’s agricultural crisis that priority must go to immediate action that can make the earliest difference”. It urges African governments not wait for the ideal conditions, saying that decades of structural reforms have left Africa with few discernible benefits for most of its people.

This has not changed either. In sub-Saharan Africa, 240-million people are food insecure, that is, they do not consistently have physical and economic access to enough food to meet their dietary needs. The agencies agree that until they are fed, the region is unlikely to achieve socioeconomic transformation. It means, in terms of a single industry’s potential effect, agriculture is perhaps the most consequential pillar of Africa’s development.

The Airbus study called The Great Enabler; Aerospace in Africa, proposes that aerospace technology such as precision farming could potentially reverse the underperformance of agriculture by enabling farmers to produce more with less. The problem is, about 70% of the continent’s agricultural output comes from smallholders, who lack the knowledge, skills and financial wherewithal to adopt the new technologies and thus attract investment. The early adopters are more likely to be large commercial farms.

The researchers say the central challenge for the highly fragmented African agriculture is, therefore, one of farmer access to the satellite data and analysis. “The question … is less about whether space-based and aerial technologies can help the agriculture. The question is, how exactly can these tools be put in the hands of most farmers?”

The report does not answer that question directly, but it does single out the critical success factors as human capital development and the creation of a business-friendly environment. This requires an understanding by governments that Africa’s competitive advantage relative to other emerging and developed markets is its potential demographic dividend – its youth.

Africa’s population has almost doubled over the past 30 years, from about 550-million in 1985 to 1.2-billion in 2015. “This rapid growth is projected to continue well into this century and 46% of that growth is expected to come from young people between the ages of 15 and 24,” the researchers say.

Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 200-million people between ages 15 and 24, but to harness this pool of talent, Africa’s government policies must accelerate investment in skills development, says the report.

The return on such an investment is beyond doubt. SA’s aerospace industry, for instance, directly employs about 15,000 highly skilled engineers who support at least 60,000 further skilled jobs. This is a multiplier effect of about 1:4.

Policymakers should consider that globally, the application of aerospace and other technologies to agriculture is increasing crop yields, reducing waste and changing agribusiness. The researchers say the technology is ballooning into an industry unto itself estimated to be worth $10.23bn by 2025. The value of geo-intelligence services alone in Africa … is projected to triple from $40m back in 2012 to $150m by 2020. The technology is a key feature of the precision-farming revolution, the research shows.

To get going, policymakers need merely to address the systemic policy and investment challenges — in infrastructure, education and workforce development — faced by any sector aspiring for growth globally.

blomn@businesslive.co.za

Read Aerospace in Africa: The Great Enabler

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