Yvonne Pinto: challenges facing the agricultural system, Mauritius and the opportunities for innovation

Yvonne Pinto

On 28th April, Katapult launched the Katapult Mauritius Accelerator at Ferney Agri-hub. Hosted by Katapult and our partners, Ferney (CIEL), IBL, Currimjee Group and MCB, the event offered the opportunity to not only showcase the 7, highly-talented participating impact tech startups but to also gain valuable insights from industry experts, including Yvonne Pinto, a lead digital agriculture and innovation specialist working in the Data Driven Digital Agriculture team of the Food and Agriculture Practice at the World Bank.

Yvonne has 25+ years’ experience in agricultural innovation in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. She has led work to understand the digital agriculture landscapes within 22 African countries from the policy and enabling environment perspective to the Agri Tech innovators and solutions, to accelerators/incubators and digital skills providers in these countries. In this article, Yvonne outlines some of the major challenges facing our agricultural systems and the opportunities for innovation as represented by both the Katapult Mauritius Accelerator Program and Regeneration Mauritius.

The global agriculture sector employs 26% of the world’s population yet between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020, and 2.37 billion people did not have access to adequate food. In Africa, with a current population of more than 1.2Billion, a huge 60-65% of the population are engaged in some way in the agriculture sector.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a devastating impact on the world economy and the global food system with particular emphasis on shortages in food supply chains.

The efforts to eradicate malnutrition have also been challenged by disruptions in the supply of nutritional interventions and negative impacts on dietary patterns. The global recession caused by the pandemic has driven poorer households to shift to cheaper, more calorie-rich staple foods at the expense of the more expensive nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, and animal-source foods. The interrelationship between the pandemic, obesity and diet-related, non-communicable diseases has increased the urgency of ensuring access to affordable food and healthy diets for all, to improve health outcomes.

There is some urgency in ensuring that agriculture feeds the world’s growing population, through using existing (or less) land, lowering GHG emissions, judicious use of water and other natural resources, improving climate resilience, and providing living wages to the millions of smallholder farmers who make a significant contribution to global food production. Furthermore, innovations in the food sector are required to drive greater traceability, food safety and more effective nutrition. 

Most malnourished people live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these are small-scale producer’s whose livelihoods depend on crop yields and they are disproportionately affected by climate risks. The exposure is short-term as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity, and long-term due to shifts in climatic patterns including temperature and levels of precipitation.  

By 2030 onwards (FAO 2021: State of Food and Nutritional Security), there is expected to be a fall in agriculture contributed GDP for the poorest countries by the end of the century. A complex network of global actors’ dependent on agricultural products for food security or as inputs for economic activity will also be affected. Global food security relies on an interdependent set of activities, which includes the stability of global markets.

Wheat prices have hit record highs (by March 2022, prices have risen more than 50%) highlighting the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, further exacerbating global food inflation and indeed food shortages in several countries. In January 2022, average food inflation around the world hit 7.8%, the highest level in seven years according to the IMF (International Monetary Fund, 2021) and is continuing to rise. Rising food prices have a greater impact on low-income households (International Food Policy Research Institute Report, 2022) which spend a larger share of their income on food. The actual rise in prices of more nutrient-rich foods has been far steeper than that of cereals which has exacerbated the shift.

What we know is that Agriculture as a sector is increasingly important, yet it struggles with poor land tenure systems, low levels of irrigation in farming, climate change and land degradation. In addition, farmers have low technology access and affordability, high production costs, poor distribution of inputs, limited financing, high post-harvest losses and poor access to markets. Given its very large youth population across the continent under the age of 30, digital entrepreneurship can drive huge economic transformation, employment, food and nutrition security and greater self-sufficiency and resilience.

Consider the plight then for the 250 million subsistence and smallholder farmers who have few resources to help them change the way they have farmed for decades.

The Katapult Africa Accelerator is critical to kickstarting a vibrant and supportive ecosystem for Agri-Tech start-ups. Their offerings of digitalisation increase on-farm and off-farm efficiency, enhance traceability and safety of food, reduce vulnerability to counterfeit products, improve farmers access to output, input and financial markets including insurance.

The seven exciting businesses being invested in today can create an alternative and far- reaching reality for the generations of the future, from new ways of getting information and inputs to farmers from platforms that can map individual farms, provide guidance on productions systems and how they can improve their soils to sustain their crops, protect farmers interests in the form of accessible insurance, provide access to finance and capital to invest in the best varieties and inputs to increase their yields, and drive incomes and quality of life. Furthermore, 80% of agricultural production on the continent is driven by women who do most of the backbreaking work and suffer constraints uniquely experienced by them.

This transformative change is driven by new forms of intermediation, collection, use and analysis of massive amounts of agricultural data that disrupt existing business models. It is also driven by partnerships and opportunities to reduce climate change, increase resilience, address low yields, and boost farmers’ incomes. It will also need new strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors which are essential components of reaping the positive impacts of digital technologies and based on shared value economic propositions.

Regeneration Mauritius is a tangible and exciting example of an opportunity of this kind for Mauritius. By ensuring a conducive enabling environment made up of legislation, digital economy advancements, the necessary infrastructure for connectivity and internet access, coupled with appropriate security and privacy to accompany these businesses is a recipe for a strong and sustainable ecosystem to drive economic growth. Furthermore, digital skills development in consumers and policy makers will help drive the conditions for further innovation, that will enable digital enterprises to take advantage of a stable and conducive environment to drive regional changes for other island nations like Mauritius and to mainstream and scale them across the African continental mainland.

Learn more about the 7 startups joining the Katapult Mauritius Accelerator Program, here.

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