Various industries continue to transform and develop as technology advances. Vaccines have been developed, electrical cars are being distributed, and online shopping has become the norm. Another industry that has developed significantly is Agriculture Technology (Agtech) which is experiencing increased automation, biotech solutions, and digitization.
These Agtech trends are shaping the future of agriculture around the world, especially in Middle East where it’s highly reliant on imports and Africa which is largely dependent on agriculture.
Each of these trends has an impact on both the industry and sustainability, helping to streamline production with minimal impact on the environment. These trends also impact sustainability agendas for governments and large companies.
As agricultural consulting experts, we published on August 2020 an article about our expectations of how the MENA agribusiness market is poised for steady growth. We’ve seen a lot of new agribusinesses emerge, big funding rounds closed and many success stories, and much of this growth is attributed to adopting Agtech trends.
Here are some of the most prolific developments in agriculture, impacting sustainability, food security, and future policies.
Ag biotech has two main ag branches - namely plant biotech and animal biotech. Both have a specific focus to optimize health and yields. For example, pest resistant crops, plant and animal breeding, fertilizers, among others are helping improve the quality of produce and maximizing crop yields around the world. The focus is on life science, exploring how living organisms can be applied to agriculture.
The trend is getting a foothold in the MENA region, but not without strict control. Various programs and policies have emerged as an effort to strengthen regional capacities and enhance the exchange of information pertaining to biosafety.
For example, the UAE has passed a mandatory biotech labeling law. The law regulates the transfer of food and agricultural products that contain GMOs by insisting that information is placed on the label of each shipment and packaging.
Automation and Robotics
Automation and robotics are being incorporated in the agriculture sector in several ways, from farm machinery that reduces the need for human labor, to irrigation systems that use natural resources efficiently, among others. The latter of which is vital in countries, such as the MENA region, that struggle with water scarcity.
Governments and organizations are moving to make automation a standard practice in agriculture. For example, the UAE introduced the National Strategy for Sustainable Agriculture in June 2020. The strategy’s main goal is to increase self-sufficiency and the efficiency levels of farms. By reducing water usage for irrigation, the UAE’s agricultural sector improves sustainability efforts.
The strategy has been put into practice and more than half of the farms in the UAE have shifted toward modern irrigation systems (instead of traditional flood irrigation). Modern irrigation systems have timers, sensors, and mechanical appliances made possible by the development of automation and robotics.
Agtech and Farm Management Software
Closely linked to automation are farm management software solutions that provide analytics on crop technical, commercial, and financial performance. Farm management software helps to reduce disruption in the supply chain and improve efficiency.
There are several farm management software tools that are region-specific. For example, eAgronom is designed to help grain growers improve record-keeping, organize tasks, and analyse their seasons.
Ag Fintech and Insurance
With so many unpredictable factors to consider in a region that struggles with food security, ag fintech and insurance play a key role in sustainability.
Fintech is growing at an exponential rate across Africa, providing solutions for consumers, education, etc. The agriculture sector is also waking up to its untapped potential as political instability and climate change continue to be a threat.
The development of financial products and software enables farmers to manage risk and finances. These products, used in conjunction with farm consultants, help set them up for success.
Agricultural insurance is gaining in popularity in various countries and even being supported by governments. However, it still needs to be explored in developing countries. The rise of the urban population is placing demands on the agricultural sector and inspiring the need to find a balance between vulnerability and stability.
Pollinators are critical to the agriculture sector, yet the bee population is declining around the world. In addition, very little work has been done on the diversity of bees in the Middle East and North Africa.
To compensate for the declining bee population, several startups are producing innovative solutions to restore bee colonies as well as find alternatives to pollination.
For example, agritech startup, Edete Precision Technologies for Agriculture, is working on high-efficiency artificial pollination. The robotic pollination system works by “dispersing optimal dosages of pollen on target flowers using an electrostatic charge so that it sticks to the highest part of the flower for direct pollination.”
It’s also important to note that not all agricultural crops rely on animal pollination. Grasses, like wheat and barley rely on wind pollination.
Ag Marketplaces are streamlining the expense of cultivation by allowing farmers to share costly machinery or lease unused land. Blockchain assists the growth of agricultural marketplaces by verifying transactions and increasing transparency.
Digital transformation presents a challenge to rural communities adopting this trend. This introduces another trend - connecting digitally with farmers. While large, rural spaces can isolate farmers and their problems, digital solutions can offer cost relief and shared solutions.
Consider how the Farmer’s Business Network, which is based in the United States for example is closing this gap by connecting with farmers on a digital platform and providing marketplace solutions. Many governments in the MENA have already started exploring these options and launching initiatives to push their local agri sectors, one example is by pooling small famers and integrating their production into one offering to secure larger export contracts.
The harsh climate in the Middle East and North Africa limits the agricultural development of the region. Indoor farming provides a realistic solution that reduces food insecurity risks and improves human control over growing conditions.
Indoor farming (also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture - CEA) is being implemented across the region, establishing greenhouses, vertical farms, aquaponics and other automated growing environments. For example, Pure Harvest Smart Farms is a Middle East start-up that grows food in the UAE desert and has positioned itself to do the same in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, securing $60 million in funding; or the new Aerofarms facility in Abu Dhabi to share in a $150 million investment from Abu Dhabi Investment Office which is expected to open in the first quarter of 2022, and will start with research and growing methods for lettuces, tomatoes and berries.
Regenerative agriculture is the method of farming and grazing in a way that rebuilds soil organic matter. It helps to prevent the loss of soil to erosion, especially useful in areas that have heavy winds and rain.
First formally introduced in the 1980s, regenerative agriculture has developed on a scale. The positive impact of the process reduces carbon drawdown and improves the water cycle. It revitalizes depleted soil and leads to improved yields of nutrient-rich crops.
The method involves a variety of activities such as cover crops, intercropping, crop rotations, and crop diversification. Traditionally, regenerative agriculture techniques have been adopted by small-scale farmers, but the interest is spreading to larger operations.
Shift to Renewable Energy
Around the world, industries are recognizing the value of renewable energy. Not only do renewable energy sources save costs in the long run, but they also improve sustainability and reduce the impact on the environment.
Agricultural regions are making the transition to renewable energy, and this includes the Middle East, where no contracts were awarded for oil-powered or gas-fuelled power stations in the MENA region in the first half of 2021.
In the same period, there were approximately $2.8bn of renewable energy project contracts in the region, demonstrating a shift in mindset to prioritize sustainable energy sources.
Grassroots Training Programs and Collaboration
There’s been an increased focus on empowering small-scale farmers with the knowledge and the means to farm sustainability. There are several grassroots training platforms that exist, such as Ghaletna Project in Lebanon, which provides local leaders, communities, and private farmers with tools and education about agricultural technologies.
An effort is also being made to encourage innovative solutions that address food security. For example, the UAE has launched the FoodTech Challenge, a global competition that offers a $1 million investment for viable solutions.
The aim of the project is to generate new business ideas that will lead to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food on a sustainable scale.
At Ollen Group, we offer expert consultancy services to help agricultural businesses in the Middle East and Africa region develop alongside industry growth.
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