The intersection of
agriculture and AI in Africa.
Perhaps the largest cause for concern in Africa right now is its agricultural sector, where climate change is having a devastating effect.
A study by McKinsey & Company found that more than 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population comprise smallholder farmers, and about 23% of its GDP comes from agriculture. But increases in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, and the rise of extreme weather events are disrupting entire industries, reducing food availability and impacting food quality. This is particularly concerning considering that Africa houses the world’s fastest growing population.
How, amid such overwhelming circumstances, do we see the continent reach its potential, not only in addressing food security but also in becoming an important player in the global food market? The answer, says UJ Vice-Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, lies in the technologies of 4IR.
Artificial intelligence (AI) offers massive opportunities for the agricultural sector. “Farmers can tap into AI to combat diseases and pests, which have been worsened by climate change and pesticide use,” Professor Marwala explains. “And drones and other robots equipped with computer vision can collect data points from farms’ existing crops.”
South African AI software Airlitix is currently being used in drones to automate greenhouse management processes. “This could be taken further,” he says. “Airlitix could also be used to collect temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide data, as well as analyse soil and crop health.”
Similar technology has been adopted elsewhere. The ThirdEye project in Kenya uses near-infrared cameras mounted on drones to survey and diagnose pests and diseases, water stress and nutrient deficiencies. This requires a combination of historical data and the use of AI.
“As we look forward – to a sustainable earth and a green economy – 4IR doesn’t only provide tools for efficiency, but also presents a unique opportunity to interrogate how we can transform the industry amid a troubled natural environment,” says Professor Marwala.