Technology Brings More Nutritious Foods to Africa

DES MOINES, Iowa — New technology has exploded onto the agricultural scene, and it’s never been more affordable for smallholder farms.

Technology should be seen as a weapon that fights poverty while improving nutrition, said Enock Chikava, deputy director of agricultural development, global growth and opportunity at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One such technology is a newly developed phone app that can identify plant diseases. Rural African farmers can take a photo of any diseased leaf and the app will identify disease with 95 percent accuracy.

“I think what’s going on is amazing,” said World Food Prize Laureate of 2013 Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto. “In the last three years, there’s been over $10 billion in startup technology agricultural companies.”

Previous technology has been slow to get to small farmers, but today, fewer cost barriers exist because of mass production. Even the smallest farmers in the world can access new technologies such as farming tools, scientific measurement systems and a wealth of agricultural knowledge through specifically developed apps. This is something that hasn’t been possible before.

“When they first sequenced the human genome, it cost nearly nearly a billion dollars,” Fraley said. “Today in our labs we can sequence, for $10, enough of a corn genome to map and breed from.”

Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer for Mars, Inc., developed portable soil examination kits. Within a few minutes of testing, the kit can identify the first 25 components on the periodic table, which helps farmers make planting decisions. This used to take weeks, he said.

In rural Africa, 37 percent of children are stunted in growth as a result of poor nutrition. This is why nutritious foods are so crucial, said Chikava.

“With these tools, now is the time (to improve) the whole food system,” Shapiro said.