The era of cheap food has ended, owing to the combined impact of megatrends on the agriculture industry; therefore, people can expect to spend more of their household budget on groceries,” sustainable agriculture company Syngenta head of corporate affairs Kinyua M’Mbijjewe tells Engineering News.
The world’s, specifically Africa’s, increasing population, was one of several megatrends highlighted at the Potatoes South Africa Congress in September, during which members of the agriculture industry discussed environmental issues, technological trends, challenges and opportunities affecting the sector.
“Africa is predicted to double its population by 2030, with Kenya growing by one-million people a year,” M’Mbijjewe notes, adding that the African population comprises mostly young people, with the average age being 18.
He explains that megatrends – global forces of development that impact on businesses, the economy, society, different cultures and individuals - were discussed at the congress, held at Premier Hotel OR Tambo, in Kempton Park.
Syngenta notes that urbanisation is another megatrend that is causing the demand for food supply in the affected cities to increase. M’Mbijjewe notes that “productive farms, logistics and infrastructure need to be in place for urbanisation to be sustainable”.
He points out that the subdivision of land, another megatrend specific to Africa, is resulting in farms becoming smaller, which could possibly lead to farmers not being able to produce enough food for the increased urban population. “In the past, the average farm was 3 ha, while currently farms are, on average, 2 ha, with further decreases envisioned.”
The company says smaller tracts of land will force farmers to work smarter and consider society’s ecofriendly demands, owing to climate change, by incorporating sustainable practises that will ensure productivity for future generations.
Syngenta notes that climate change is a megatrend, which is causing a significant shift in the way farmers undertake agriculture. “We are seeing higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfall, therefore, farmers cannot predict their crop yields, which will lead to a spike in food prices,” says M’Mbijjewe.
“New technologies, such as drip irrigation and genetically modified seeds to produce greater crop yields, are ways of approaching farming. Understanding weather patterns and working around them are crucial for farmers to adapt to the new agricultural environment,” he says.
To meet these demands, the company says it requires farmers to think holistically and it highlights that government needs to support new farming behaviours and invest in new farming technologies.
Syngenta says only 4% to 5% of Africa is irrigated, while about 35% of Asia is irrigated. “We must ask what can be done to capture more rainfall in Africa, which would otherwise end up in the ocean,” M’Mbijjewe notes.
Further, developing new seeds and technologies in crop protection and in weather pattern prediction, will result in greater crop yields.
“Smart seeds are important in creating sustainability, as they cope better with the changing environment, resist diseases and insects and produce higher yields,” he adds.
Syngenta uses normal breeding of seeds as well as biotechnology in regions such as South Africa, the US, South America and Canada. “Some of these crops have been tailored to resist drought stress,” M’Mbijjewe says, adding that drought-adaptive seeds require a complex structure of genes.
The company spends a great deal of research on and investment in developing these seeds and plants, and hopes to distribute them worldwide to ensure sustainable food production.
“Specifically in Africa, we are going to need all the new technologies and innovations that are available,” he says, adding that Africa is largely an agricultural economy and that 70% to 80% of its people are still dependent on agriculture, despite the land not being food secure.
The company points out that considering new ways of irrigation is a short-term solution that can be easily implemented. “Drip irrigation means that water will be used wisely and will reach crops evenly, by dripping slowly into the roots of plants,” M’Mbijjewe says, explaining that, since water is becoming a rare resource, farmers need to think of ways to conserve it while they produce crops.
Syngenta adds that weeds are a common problem in farming activities since they absorb valuable water that could be used for crops, encouraging farmers to actively seek ways of preventing the growth of and eliminating weeds.
Another short-term means of ensuring productivity is farmer adaptation. “Farmers need to use naturally available resources, such as rain, as much as possible,” says M’Mbijjewe.
Growth in Africa
“Almost all of sub-Saharan Africa is being challenged to produce adequate food supplies for the region’s population,” M’Mbijjewe says, adding that the quality, affordability, accessibility and availability of enough food will constitute adequate food supply.
He highlights that expanding cities and increasing demand are signs of opportunity, rather than a challenge, for the agriculture sector.
“We are seeing a rise in the number of supermarkets in Africa, showing that there is increasing demand for consumable goods and produce,” M’Mbijjewe says, noting that this requires increased availability of supply chains and it provides an incentive for farmers to grow crops.
Further, the company highlights that, besides farmers, it works with other sectors of the food industry to gain a holistic understanding of the industry.
In Africa, there are about 300-million middle-class citizens and the number continues to increase. Six of the top ten fastest developing countries in the world are in Africa; therefore, disposable income is increasing on the continent.
“Lives are becoming more complex and people want easy-to-access convenience when it comes to food,” he says, adding that this is an opportunity for a more structured food and agriculture industry to be developed.
“The mindset of famers plays a huge role in how they are willing to adapt to new farming practises,” M’Mbijjewe notes, adding that the importance of farmers’ mindsets is often not understood by people in the industry, who would rather focus on technology solutions and infrastructure.
“This challenge calls for partnership, since it requires an organisation, such as Syngenta, which is technology driven, to partner with civil-society organisations and government to create and communicate behaviour-change messages,” he adds.
He highlights that, in every community, there are leaders who are ready to adapt to and implement new farming techniques. “These leaders can inspire other farmers in the community to adopt these changes.”
Another major challenge facing Africa is the lack of new farmers joining the industry. “The average coffee farmer in Kenya, for example, is 70, while the average age for tea farmers is 60, leading to growing concerns, as Kenya is the biggest exporter of tea in the world,” M’Mbijjewe points out, adding that once these skilled farmers can no longer work, fewer and less skilled farmers will take their place.
“Young people, in general, are not interested in farming, as they believe it is a labour-intensive job that is not associated with technology and trends that are at the core of the modern lifestyle,” he explains.
The company highlights that the agriculture industry needs to encourage young people to get involved in and be enthusiastic about farming and agriculture, and regard it as a sustainable career that is not only important in society but also has great monetary returns.
Therefore, Syngenta says it is running the Young Plant Raisers campaign, which entails working with young people in a greenhouse, in Kenya, to grow cabbage, tomato and green pepper seedlings, which are sold to other farmers. “The greenhouse is aesthetically pleasing and is associated with technology because of the way it is built, thereby appealing to the youth, while the campaign itself encourages young people to be self-employed in the agriculture industry,” he adds.
M’Mbijjewe notes that the company is continuously looking for new projects to support, specifically internship programmes for agriculture students. “We want to show the youth that the agriculture industry provides a large array of job opportunities, even in marketing, information technology, transportation, research and development, accounting and science.
He remains optimistic about the African farming environment, noting that World Bank studies have shown that agriculture is two to four times more effective at reducing poverty than other sectors such as mining and infrastructure.