With the world population set to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050, the demand for food is growing proportionately. The UN estimates that we will have to, at the very least, double our agricultural output by 2050 to keep up with this worldwide population growth.
The question of how to meet the world’s food needs in a sustainable way is becoming more pressing as the agricultural industry struggles to address a number of challenges. Current farming practices are depleting the farm soil and exacerbating deforestation and water scarcity. The rising middle class in emerging economies is driving the demand for meat and dairy, which are very resource-intensive to produce. The West is wasting more food than ever before, while farmers growing that food make up for the greatest share of the world’s malnourished and poor. Climate change, mass urbanization, and global trade are only a few of the other trends impacting agriculture.
New Technologies Are Creating Big Opportunities
This has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to help solve problems with food production and the preservation of natural resources. Agritech, the use of technology in agriculture with the aim of improving sustainability, efficiency, and profitability, is leading the way. Today, Agritech startups around the world are looking to scale, leveraging technology to positively disrupt the sector.
According to AgTech, Agritech is a $7.8 trillion industry with investments reaching $2.6 billion. It can be said that Agritech is starting to go mainstream with plenty of opportunities for expansion in the sector in the years to come. The innovation areas we outlined below are only a fraction of the technologies that will impact the agriculture industry.
For example, vertical and urban farms have made their way into campuses, onto rooftops, skyscrapers, and shipping containers – significantly reducing the amount of water and fertilizers needed to grow food. Novel methods of growing crops, such as aeroponics, desert agriculture, and seawater farming are being explored or used as alternatives. For instance, a German startup neoFarms developed a fridge-like device that automatically grows crops using aeroponics. They are hoping for it to become a common household appliance.
Foodsharing and crowdfunding initiatives are popping up around the world aiming to reduce food waste. There are companies out there seeking to reduce the dependence of an ever-growing population on traditional meat sources by developing sustainable alternative plant-based sources of protein. Smart farms are on the rise globally thanks to AI (Artificial Intelligence), IoT (Internet of Things) and big data analytics. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are being used to provide growers with visibility, monitoring, and actionable analytics to optimize their farming. This data can then, for example, help build predictive models which can then be used to provide solutions such as predictive scheduling of fertilizer use. Drones are already being integrated to measure and monitor fields, create terrain maps, map fertilizer use, predict soil quality, and even plant seeds.
Agritech companies also focus on online supply chain management by streamlining inventory administration, warehouse strategies, and distribution practices.
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For example, Agrocenta is a Ghanaian Agritech startup that has won a $500,000 investment for coming first globally at the 2018 Seedstars World competition in Lausanne, Switzerland. They developed an online platform that connects the smallholder farmer (farms operating with less than two hectares of land), in the staple food (rice, maize, millet, and soybean) value chain to a wider online market to trade. Agrocenta ensures farmers are paid fair prices for their commodities and also allows them to sell in bulk. Those farmers also gain access to capital and information about best farming practices. Since winning at the Seedstars Summit, Agrocenta has been growing rapidly and has been showing the potential to become a regional or global solution.
Transforming Food to Achieve SDGs
Agrocenta is an example of how Agritech can help contribute to SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It enables smallholder farmers to become financially independent, thereby alleviating them from poverty. Through their product, Agrocenta also contributes to SDG2 Zero Hunger, SDG8 Decent Work, and Economic Growth, and also promotes Gender Equality (SDG5) through increasing the participation of women in agriculture and land ownership. Agrocenta points to the fact that a well-performing and smartly regulated agriculture sector, powered by Agritech, can cater to rising food demands and help fast-track global efforts to achieve SDGs, especially SDG1 (No Poverty) and SDG2 (Zero Hunger).
Another example is a Kenyan startup SolarFreeze that in 2018, at the Seedstars World competition, took home $50,000. Solar Freeze developed mobile cold storage units powered by renewable energy for rural smallholder farmers and traders to help them reduce the huge challenge of post-harvest loss. Postharvest losses are as high as 80% in the developing world due to the high cost of equipment and spotty electricity. SolarFreeze helps reduce food waste, increases food security, optimizes the supply chain system, and leads to increased incomes for rural women and youth – contributing to many of the SDGs.
The agriculture sector is not only responsible for the production of food but is also one of the main generators of employment and income worldwide. The vast majority of the world’s farmers - 1.5 billion people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - are women and smallholder farmers yet they are the largest group of people in the world living in poverty. The World Bank estimates that growth in agriculture is two to four times more powerful at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Agritech is, therefore, uniquely capable of transforming the lives of people around the globe by creating decent job opportunities and economic growth, especially in emerging economies.
While Agritech can lead the way on SDGs, accomplishing this enormous task will not be possible without joining forces and creating collaborative, multi-stakeholder partnerships. Governments, big corporations, SMEs, innovative startups, NGOs, research and development agencies and agricultural communities will need to work together on long-term solutions.
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