Power for Mechanizing Small Farms in Sub-Saharan Africa
This post is written by Ajit Srivastava, Ph.D., P.E., Professor Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Michigan State University.
Africa’s population is expected to reach nearly 2.5 billion by the year 2050, a nearly 100% increase over the 2020 level. Population growth, coupled with diet transformation caused by growth in the middle class, will result in increased demand for animal proteins. By 2030, consumption of poultry meat and eggs will increase by 63%, milk by 55% and ruminant meat by 44%. Based on these predictions, the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) 2014 Gap Report estimates that demand for livestock, poultry and fish will be the largest driver of the world food economy, and is expected to double by 2050, with 70% of the increase coming from developing countries. Therefore, global agricultural production will need to double by 2050 to meet the growing demand for food and alleviate hunger. Given that 80% of the 41 million farmers in Africa are smallholders, it is imperative that we find ways to increase the productivity of smallholders in Africa.
In the United States, tractors replaced 24 million draft animals from 1925 to 1955, totally transforming agriculture from subsistence farming to the highly productive, profitable industry it is today. Similarly, in Europe under the Marshall Plan, between 1945 and 1955, millions of draft animals were replaced by tractors, transforming Europe to the industrial powerhouse it is today. In India, the use of mechanical power has increased from 10% in 1961 to more than 90% by 2014. Power input to agriculture is forecast to rise from less than 2 kW/ha currently to 4.5 kW/ha by 2050. There is a strong correlation among the level of agricultural mechanization, farm productivity and food security. Therefore, to increase productivity, we must increase energy input that is renewable and sustainable. A study conducted by Singh revealed that manual labor is the highest contributor to production costs. The study also reported that higher use of machines reduces production costs. This contradicts the notion that poor nations cannot afford to mechanize. Similar lessons can be learned from agricultural mechanization in China.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 70% of farm operations are performed manually (mainly by women and children), 20% by draft animal power and only 10% by mechanical power, thus severely limiting the level of mechanization that can be deployed on small African farms. While the use of mechanical power has been steadily increasing in other parts of the world, such as China and Southern Asia, with corresponding increases in yields, it remains low in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been expected that the use of farm power in sub-Saharan Africa will evolve in a manner like other countries around the world. This has not been the case, as many who own livestock in sub-Saharan Africa are pastoralists and do not practice crop production. Furthermore, two-thirds of the land area is infested with tsetse flies, making it very difficult to have livestock. Additionally, draft animal power is further challenged as demand for animal protein increases and animals are more valuable as food animals rather than as draft animals. Draft animal power is regarded by youth as B.C. (before Christ) technology and is a deterrent in attracting youth to agriculture.
Mechanical power technology for agriculture can be divided into three categories: 1) traditional two-axle, four-wheel tractors; 2) low horsepower, low-cost four-wheel tractors specially designed for developing countries; and 3) the power tillers (2 WT) primarily developed for irrigated agriculture in Asia. None of these tractors suit the needs of smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. What is needed is a traction device that can replace draft animal power that can be used for multiple operations, including tillage, planting, weeding, transport and other stationary operations around the farm, such as threshing, milling and forage chopping. The Appropriate-Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) at Michigan State University, funded by the USAID Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab (SIIL) at Kansas State University, has developed a solar-charged, two-wheel traction platform suitable for performing field operations such as tillage, planting and weed control. It is also able to provide power to conduct other operations, such as threshing, milling and forage chopping, which will help to reduce human drudgery, especially among women, as presented in the paper, “A Solar-powered Two-wheel Multipurpose Traction Platform,” by Ajit Srivastava, R. Ledebuhr, S. Marquie and S. Effa at the Annual International Meeting of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) held in Detroit, MI, in 2018.
The traction unit has a simple, open-source design, and is powered by a 2-horsepower, 24-volt (v) DC electric motor and four 12 v deep-cycle marine batteries. The unit can generate 200 pounds of draft force on a continuous basis at 2 miles per hour operating speed. It can cover about a half-acre per hour or 2 acres of land before it needs to be recharged while performing primary tillage. In operations such as planting and weed control, it can complete 4 to 5 acres on one charge. The unit can be fully recharged in four hours using 1 kW solar panels. To introduce and scale this technology in Africa, ASMC is collaborating with many companies with expertise and interest in African agriculture. These companies include Regenerators Africa, Aptech Africa Ltd, Printed Motor Works and Danfoss, which will redesign, build, test and scale this unit for sub-Saharan Africa.
Regenerators Africa is a new entity whose vision is to leverage agricultural mechanization to develop a thriving rural Africa based upon regenerative, renewable, resilient, autonomous and equitable farming communities. It is managed by an experienced team of engineers, designers, development specialists and sustainability experts who have previously worked in start-ups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government bodies and multinational corporations. The initial focus for Regenerators Africa is Uganda, and they have created a joint venture with a local university called the International University of East Africa.
Aptech Africa Ltd is an engineering, procurement and construction company that works in solar energy and water pumping. It is headquartered in Uganda and operates in seven countries across Africa with the mission of increasing access to clean electricity and water to people across the continent. To date, Aptech has helped to bring access to water to over 650,000 people and access to electricity to over 120,000 people. Aptech has a reputation of delivering energy projects in some of the most difficult to operate regions in Africa. Its team has more than 50 years of experience in the renewable energy space combined, and is committed to bringing the apex in technology to address Africa’s energy needs. Aptech also has a research and development department that has been focusing on creating energy storage solutions locally manufactured and serviced in Uganda. Aptech sees that the future of agriculture relies on renewable energy solutions and is excited to be a part of this project.
The Printed Motor Works, based in Alton, United Kingdom, is an innovative company that has developed hub motors that fit within the wheel hubs; and Danfoss is a major electronics controls company with an office in South Africa. These companies will create an ecosystem necessary for scaling the two-wheel tractor (OX-2) for the African market. We plan to test the OX-2 in Senegal during the 2022 growing season.
The ASMC, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is part of the Feed the Future SIIL at Kansas State University, which is funded by USAID.
Key leaders and implementers include: Michigan State University, North Carolina A&T University, Tillers International, Bangladesh Agricultural University, Royal Agricultural University at Phnom Penh, Nazi Boni University at Bobo-Dioulasso and the Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute.
References and Additional Reading
- “Agricultural Mechanization in Africa: Time for action (2008) Planning investment for enhanced agricultural productivity.” Report of a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Expert Group Meeting in January 2008 in Vienna, Austria.
- Ashburner, John E. and Josef Kienzle. 2009. “Investment in Agricultural Mechanization in Africa: Conclusions and Recommendations of a Round Table Meeting of Experts.”
- Baruah, Debendra C. and Ganesh C. Bora. 2008. “Energy Demand Forecast for Mechanized Agriculture in Rural India.” Energy Policy 36(7), pp. 2628-2636.
- Böttinger, S., R. Doluschitz, J. Klaus, C. Jenane and N. Samarakoon. 2013. “Agricultural Development and Mechanization in 2013: A Comparative Survey at a Global Level (UNIDO).”
- Cao, Weihua, Huang Huang and Milni Yang. 2014. “The Effect of Agricultural Mechanization on Food Yield in China.” Paper No. 141900127, presented at the ASABE and Canadian Society for Bioengineering (CSBE)/Société Canadienne de Génie Agroalimentaire et de Bioingénierie (SCGAB) Annual Meeting in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA). 2014. “Advancing agricultural mechanization (AM) to promote farming and rural development in Africa.” Position paper.
- FAO. 2013. “Mechanization for Rural Development.” Integrated Crop Management. Vol. 20.
- Gitau, M., S. Asem-Hiablie, K. Ileleji and A. Srivastava. 2021. “The Alliance for Modernizing African Agrifood Systems.” Resource Magazine.
- Global Harvest Initiative. 2014. “The GAP Report.”
- Kienzle, J.E., B.G. Ashburner and B. G. Sims. 2013. “Mechanization for Rural Development: A review of patterns and progress from around the world.” Integrated Crop Management, FAO 20.
- Kienzle, J. and B. Sims. 2014. “Agricultural mechanization strategies for sustainable production intensification: concepts and cases from (and for) sub-Saharan Africa.” Proc. 25th Meeting, Club of Bologna, Bologna, Italy.
- Mrema, G.C., J. Kienzle and J. Mpagalile. 2018. “Current Status and Future Prospects of Agricultural Mechanization in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).” Ama, Agricultural Mechanization in Asia, Africa and Latin America. 49(2), pp. 13-30.
- Reid, J. F. “The Impact of Mechanization on Agriculture.” The Bridge on Agriculture and Information Technology. 41(3), pp. 22-29.
- Singh, G. 2006. “Estimation of a Mechanization Index and Its Impact on Production and Economic Factors — A Case Study in India.” Biosystems Engineering. 93(1), pp. 99-106.
- Skelton, Daniel R., Christopher M. Limiac and John H. Lumkes. 2014. “Mechanized Agriculture in Rural Developing Countries.” Paper No. 141894228, presented at the ASABE and CSBE/SCGAB Annual International Meeting in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- Srivastava, Ajit, R. Ledebuhr, S. Marquie and S. Effa. 2018. “A Solar-powered Two-wheel Multipurpose Traction Platform.” Paper No. 1801842, presented at the ASABE Annual International Meeting in Detroit, MI.
- Srivastava, A. 2020. “The Power of Small-scale Mechanization.” Resource Magazine. 27(2), pp. 4-5.
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2005. “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision.”
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2019. “World Population Prospects 2019.”
- van Beek, W. 2016. “OX-1, Master’s degree project, Umeå Institute of Design.” Umeå University.