Fertilize by drone, till by text: Making tech work for Africa’s farmers

Stacey Knott
Farmers on Daniel Asherow's pineapple farm in Adeiso, Ghana, watch as Valentine Kluste gets a drone ready to spray the crops. In 15 minutes, it can cover the same ground that would take five people an hour by conventional means.
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Uber for tractors? That’s the premise of TROTRO Tractor, a company in Ghana. And in communities where small farms do most work manually and would struggle to buy their own vehicle, it hopes to be a game changer. Farmers in Africa tend to have access to significantly less mechanized equipment than those elsewhere. Today there is a push to change that, from TROTRO’s tractors to fertilizer drones, all of which could boost harvests and bigger-picture food security. But here, as around the world, mechanization also comes with fears about jobs being replaced by machines. Half of the continent depends on agriculture for all or part of their livelihood, according to the United Nations, and unlike in many other regions, that number is holding steady. But with the right planning, taking specific communities’ needs into account, many are hopeful that mechanization will yield better jobs and more of them. TROTRO has an ultimate aim, CEO Kamal Yakub says with a grin. “We are going to put the cutlass and hoe in the museum so that our children will come in 20 years and say, ‘What's the use of this?’ ”

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes we talk about automation and job rates as though they’re in a zero-sum game. But successful innovation does more than develop new technology; it figures out how to boost workers, too.

Daniel Asherow eyes a large white drone as it buzzes above his rows of pineapple plants, methodically spraying fertilizer into green stems that will soon produce juicy fruits for export. The drone hovers a few feet in the air, covering in 15 minutes the same ground that usually takes five workers an hour.

Around the world, agriculture is becoming ever-more mechanized: from robot-run farms in Japan, to artificial intelligence-tracked pigs in China, to strawberry-picking machines in the United States. Here in Ghana, in rolling plains of pineapples a few hours northeast of Accra, high-tech farming innovations are still in their early days. The potential long-term gains are especially crucial for sub-Saharan Africa – but also, the prospect of short-term farming job loss is especially severe. 

Half of the continent depends on agriculture for all or part of their livelihood, according to the United Nations Agriculture in Africa 2013 report. And unlike in many other regions, that number isn’t waning: agriculture has absorbed half of all new entrants to Africa’s workforce over the past 30 years. By 2050, the continent’s population is expected to grow by more than 1 billion – people who need greater food security, but also jobs. Yet nations where mechanization becomes the norm have typically seen drastic drops in agricultural employment.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes we talk about automation and job rates as though they’re in a zero-sum game. But successful innovation does more than develop new technology; it figures out how to boost workers, too.

But a crop of entrepreneurs are pushing to re-envision sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture, increasing mechanization in ways that not only increase productivity and incomes, but ultimately create better jobs: not hand-tilling the fields, but flying the drones. For that to work, financing, training, infrastructure, and supportive policies are needed across the continent, with solutions that target particular communities. Not everyone needs to own the equipment, they just need to have access to it: from portable mills, to shared tractors.

Mechanization is “not only needed – it’s urgent,” says Alex Ariho, chief executive of the Ghana-based African Agribusiness Incubators Network.

Farming from above

Today, Mr. Asherow is just trying out the drone. But it comes at a good time, he says, as he’s struggled to attract new workers lately. Unlike many African countries, Ghana has already seen a drop in farm-labor supply, as a result of urbanization. In the early 1990s, agriculture was 56 percent of Ghana’s total employment; today it is 40 percent. Young people who once would have looked for farm work are now heading to urban areas, he says, where they can find jobs like driving mototaxis. He hopes that drone jobs prompt young workers to take another look at farming.

Still, some workers’ fears about being replaced by technology are justified, he says. “Those who have been working on a farm for a long time without the requisite training, it will be difficult for them to be absorbed.”

He anticipates employees coming to him with concerns over their jobs being replaced by machines. But pineapple-growing still relies on “a lot of areas for manual work – the planting and initial jobs to get the plant established.”

Much of sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture today focuses on low-tech labor, with little post-harvest processing; most crops are sold in their raw form to local markets, or exported. Farmers here have 10 times fewer mechanized tools per farm area than farmers in other developing regions, according to the African Development Bank Group. Better technology could spur more processing, distribution, and marketing, all of which could create more jobs, agricultural experts say. But it also stands to boost food security. Africa has the world’s highest share of food waste, due in large part to problems like cold storage. Crop loss has become a significant problem in the face of climate change.

As in many parts of the world, the rise of mechanization has spurred concerns about job losses. Sheryl Hendriks, a food security expert at the University of Pretoria, says those worries are rooted in “a fear of change, rather than facts.”

“If you release labor from a very tedious, drudgery-based part of the system, you have an opportunity to create jobs elsewhere,” she says.

Back on Asherow’s farm, pilot Valentine Klutse walks along the rows of the crops, mapping out coverage. He then mixes the fertilizer with water and pours it into a tank beneath the drone’s blades. With a few simple clicks on the controller, the drone is buzzing up in the air, releasing the treatment through nozzles.

The drone belongs to AcquahMeyer Aviation, the brainchild of Ghanaian entrepreneur Eric Acquah and his wife Tracey Meyer, the company's chief operating officer. While living in Germany, the duo used to see Ghanaian produce on the shelves at their local supermarkets. But they suddenly saw a drastic decrease, linked to the European Union’s 2015 two-year ban on five Ghanaian vegetables. Farmers were not sufficiently spraying their crops, an agronomist told them, which had led to infestations. Determined to see Ghanaian exports back in European supermarkets, they launched their company in 2017.

While they are still in their first year of business, demand is booming.

“It's something that the agriculture industry was waiting for. We came in at the right time with the right technology,” Mr. Acquah says.

The company has also sprayed pesticides, preventing rapid crop loss.

“The manual sprayers will need five days; half the farm will be gone by the time you complete it,” Acquah adds. “When we come in with a two-acre farm we can spray it in 15 minutes and kill the insect before they kill the farm.”

While sprayers’ jobs might be lost due to the drones, higher yields could yield new positions in processing, transport, packaging, and selling. The company has plans of employing close to 2,000 people across Ghana. Drones are currently designed and made in Germany, but Acquah wants to build a factory in Ghana to assemble them.

Tractor by text-message

Hire, rent, or share technology – don’t buy. That’s the premise of Acquah's drone operation, as well as Ghana’s TROTRO Tractor. The Uber-like service links farmers with tractor owners via mobile phones.

“It's more of removing the tedious nature of work and bringing in more people to enter into the business so it's not taking away jobs, it's creating more jobs,” says chief executive Kamal Yakub, who adds he has trained or employed around 250 people in Ghana to operate the tractors.

This year, with funding from the NGO Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, they have focused on Ghana’s Upper West Region, a poor area along the northern border with Burkina Faso. He noticed the service could be a game-changer for women in particular, who run their households while farming with a simple cutlass and hoe. For about $50, women could plow a two-acre farm with a tractor, saving around a week’s labor.

It seemed like the first time many of them had been offered access to a tractor, he says, and suggests patriarchal beliefs were at play. But when someone requests a tractor via text message, you “don't know who is there – it’s first come, first served.”

The company has an ultimate aim, Mr. Yakub says with a grin. “We are going to put the cutlass and hoe in the museum so that our children will come in 20 years and say, ‘What's the use of this?’ ”

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