Africa’s agri-tech: The do’s and don’ts for start-ups

Recent years have seen a rapid proliferation of tech incubators and start-up acceleration programme in Africa. Many are agriculturally focused. 

While the efficacy of this incubation boom is under the spotlight, agri-tech innovation is heating up.

With this, agricultural entrepreneurs and tech startups are faced with a difficult decision: do they follow the easy money by replicating industrial systems or attempt to leap-frog towards just and sustainable solutions for Africa’s food system? 

The high-tech agricultural operations in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are often a source of envy. Although industrial value chains appear productive, profitable and efficient, here are four reasons this is not a model ag-tech innovators should emulate without adjustments. 

It’s a weak business proposition. Using conventional economic metrics, OECD agriculture fails as a viable business proposition.

The EU which spends 60b Euro every year keeping its farmers in business. That is three times as much as Europe spends annually on development aid to all of Africa. 

Modern agriculture has provided unprecedented variety and stability to much of the world, but modern agricultural monocultures and their associated supermarket value chains of highly processed calorific foods are driving a health crisis. 

For African policy makers, embracing American-style agro-industrial practices is not only likely to unleash a continental health crisis, but it would also be an exceptionally bad economic decision that creates profits for the few, through a hidden tax on the majority.  

Unless we fundamentally change by whom and how food is produced, further increasing global food production will not solve hunger. It will only deepen our obesity crisis, accelerate environmental loss and increase the volume of animal products consumed by the rich and middle classes. 

The question agri-tech innovators should be asking is: What it would mean to avoid replicating failing industrial models of food production onto Africa, in order to leap-frog the continent into something truly just and sustainable?

Dr Metelerkamp is a research fellow at Rhodes University and a farmer