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With Africa poised to have the largest workforce by 2035, will we have enough food?

By Nnamdi Oranye and Ryan Peter

I’m sure you know by now, but we’re at the dawn of a new age. When you studied history at school, you probably (at least once) wondered about what it might have been like to live in the dawn of the industrial revolution, or the advent of the Renaissance, or perhaps even the Tang dynasty in China, or some other key time period in human history. But in generations to come, people will wonder what it was like to live in *your* time period – the emergence of a new technological age; the time of the Fourth Industrial revolution; the time when humanity and technology began to converge.

What will be the outcome? It remains to be seen. There are a lot of alarmists out there, but when we look at the data, we’re seeing the positives are far outweighing the negatives.

History shows us that this generally happens. Think of what it must have been like at the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century in Britain. This was a key time when agricultural methods finally broke with the past, with new techniques and scientific discovery led to better crop yields, greater diversity of crops, and the ability to sustain more livestock. It was a huge contributor to Britain’s growth, economy, and health, in particular. Farming suddenly became big business, thanks to the invention of technology such as the horse-drawn seed press, which made labour much less intensive and much more productive. Britain actually progressed more rapidly than any other European country, despite its smallness. The new methods meant more could be done on the same land than ever before.

Technology brings benefits & social change

This Agricultural Revolution brought with it major changes. The positive changes were obvious: food was more widely available, could be sold for cheaper, and more people could sustain their health. A healthy society is a more productive, happy society, which brings with it all the benefits. Productivity and availability were all increased. But it caused major social upheaval as well. In order to support the new methods of farming, Enclosure Laws were passed, which limited the common land available to small farmers. Wealthy lords soon swooped in and purchased public fields, pushing out the small scale farmers, who migrated to the cities (and later became the labor for new emerging industries in the Industrial Revolution). Technology always brings with it tremendous benefits along with major social change.

Things are no different today. We’ve got the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) which is set to change everything – and in numerous positive ways. The rise of self-driving farm vehicles is one aspect in agriculture that is getting a lot of mainstream press. In the Agricultural Revolution there was the horse-drawn seed-press, today there is the computer-drawn seed press. But there is also a huge amount happening behind the scenes with the advent of A.I. Machine learning models are being developed to help both track and predict local weather and other environmental impacts, or measure and predict soil quality. Access to the technology is also becoming significantly easier.

The agriculture sector remains challenging

Nuru (Swahili for “light”), developed by PlantVillage is an A.I. assistant that provides expert level farming knowledge to anyone who has the app on their phone. It has learned to diagnose various diseases – armyworm infections, potato disease, wheat disease, and others. Along with this app, PlantVillage is looking to use drones that collect images and video and help farmers to spot disease in their crops a lot easier. PlantVillage is even looking to use satellite imagery to spot where crops are struggling. This is being used in Africa today. A lot of this is making use of Tensorflow, which is Google’s open sourced A.I. to help developers find solutions to real-world problems. Just this week, Google opened its first A.I. lab in Ghana. The company is clearly positioning itself as an A.I. company first and foremost.

The Agricultural Sector remains one of Africa’s most challenging sectors, but it is transforming quickly. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is projected to become a US$1 trillion industry by 2030, according to PriceWaterhouse.  With Africa to have the largest workforce by 2035, an increased healthy food production is absolutely key. We have to challenge our traditional modes of thinking when it comes to farming. With so much land available and so much new technology beginning to emerge, agribusiness is sure to be good business looking forward.

We can’t go back. Technology has arrived, is here to stay, and is ready to evolve along with us. Yes, it’ll bring societal change. Yes, lawmakers will probably even make mistakes. Arguably, the Enclosure Laws did help to create wide class gaps which the Industrial Revolution exacerbated. But on the other hand, it also helped lift many others out of poverty. The question for all of us is whether we will run ahead and foresee the change coming, work with it, work with the players involved, and guide it all towards greener pastures.

Nnamdi Oranye is an author and the CEO of Disrupting Africa, a research think-tank dedicated to moving African innovation forward. He is the author of “Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation” and “Taking on Silicon Valley: How Africa’s Innovators Will Shape its Future”.

Ryan Peter is a writer and the chief editor of the Disrupting Africa Encyclopedia, which has made it its mission to write the stories of Africa’s innovators and entrepreneurs.