News - June 4, 2017

Precision agriculture for African farmers

Albert Sikkema

Precision agriculture is not exclusive to the modern, western farmers. Smaller farmers in West Africa can also use precision agriculture to improve their harvest and labour productivity. This was revealed by a publication of the Wageningen agroecologist Ken Giller together with international colleagues.

Maize field in Burkina Faso. ©Shutterstock

Farmers in the semi-arid part of West Africa have to deal with poor plant growth, varying precipitation, low soil fertility and a lack of labour, and they have little money and resources to solve these problems. That is why they benefit from cultivation measures that make efficient use of the available resources and diminish the risks of poor harvest. Precision agriculture can help the farmers improve their production, write the researchers in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development.

An example is digging pits in which water is caught and fertilizer is concentrated, like in zaï practice in Burkina Faso, combined with timely sowing and weeding. But precision agriculture knows several other principles in this part of West Africa, the researchers state. In that situation, it pays off to select larger seeds and to treat them with a mix of pesticides and fungicides before sowing. This treatment can easily yield a 15 percent increase of the harvest. Furthermore, an accurate distribution of fertilizer in the pits can double the production. The distribution and use of seeds and fertilizer can be improved further through mechanisation. Suitable machines also ensure a savings of labour in the sowing season. And finally, the pits can hold water and prevent erosion if they are dug well before the sowing day. This combination of measures ensures a much higher food security in the region.

Low-cost version
This is the first article in which the principles of precision agriculture and agricultural intensification are applied in the context of West Africa, state the authors. Besides Giller, the authors are the Norwegian agronomist Jens Aune, who visited Giller’s group in Wageningen during his sabbatical last year, and the Malian economist Adama Coulibaly. They observed that a low-cost version of precision agriculture could be developed in Africa, which would primarily ensure an increase of labour productivity and a higher crop yield per hectare. The principles can be applied to all major crops in the semi-arid part of West Africa, the researchers concluded.