Across Africa, governments, development practitioners and private companies have rediscovered focus on driving mechanical agriculture as a priority. Transformation from small-scale subsistence farms to mechanised, more commercially viable farms is essential for the future of the continent in order to keep pace with food demand. This is the first part in a series on agricultural mechanisation and development.

What is mechanical agriculture?

Mechanical agriculture is broadly defined as the use of tools, implements and powered machinery and equipment to achieve agricultural production. This relates to both crop and livestock production, as well as aquaculture (fish farming) and apiculture (bee-keeping). The related process means that mechanisation replaces hand tools used by humans (or with animals). More sophisticated and motorised equipment reduces manual hard labour and results in improved productivity, quicker delivery and better use of resources. Ultimately, this leads to sustainable mechanisation within the food and agricultural sector, which includes use of the latest technology (precision farming, GPS levelling), benefit to the socio-economic status quo and provides positive impacts on the environment.

The related term “agricultural mechanisation” covers the manufacture, distribution, repair and maintenance, utilisation and management of agricultural tools, implements, equipment and machines in agricultural production – for land development, crop and livestock production, harvesting and storage, in addition to on-farm processing and rural transportation (Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations [FAO]).

The status of farming mechanisation in Africa

African farm systems were among the least mechanised across all continents (FAO, 2016), but recent years have changed this situation with the re-emergence of agriculture on Africa’s development agenda, which has led to a renewed interest in mechanisation.

Development partners have also begun to promote mechanisation, and the world’s leading agricultural machinery companies recognise Africa as an emerging market. In Ghana, for example, up to 80% of farmers use modern machinery and in Ethiopia, rising rural wages and the cost of working animals are positively correlated with mechanisation. More countries have been following the trend, such as Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, with South Africa at the forefront of development in multiple areas.

Many global and regional organisations, among them the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an organisation funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, seek to promote agricultural transformation and improve food security on the African continent. The potential in many countries is significant, but unlocking it requires practical, on-the-ground effort and innovation. Crop yields must increase substantially over the coming decades to keep pace with food demand driven by population growth and rapid urbanisation in Africa. This is where mechanisation can play both a direct and indirect role – using the appropriate equipment, backed by sound advice and practices, will reduces both harvest and post-harvest losses, the low-hanging fruit that can bridge the gap between actual and potential yield.

Benefits of farm mechanisation

There is a natural correlation between strong growth in mechanised agriculture and achieved higher output. Leaders and specialists understand this aspect in the long-term vision of agricultural development and food security.

Advances in renewable energy and digital technology all assist in making the transformation process swifter and more lucrative for all stakeholders. There is a Zero Hunger vision by 2025, set by the Malabo Declaration of 2014. This objective requires doubling agricultural productivity, so farmers and state initiatives need to drive access to mechanisation services. These will improve the quality of planting, preparation, seed, fertiliser which impact harvesting levels and yields, as well as the logistics to transport produce to market.

Experience around the world has shown that cereals (maize, wheat, etc.) can be easily mechanised, resulting in large increases in overall productivity. Mechanisation can make the difference in farm profitability, provided there is well thought-out and thorough land clearance, access to well-priced machinery and implements and that maintenance and repairs can be done quickly and affordably. However, if farms are not profitable before mechanisation, the likelihood of them becoming profitable as a result of mechanisation alone is low.

Efforts to accelerate mechanisation require substantial commitment – changing from more manual farming methods, submitting to financial obligations and being prepared to go the distance. Without this, the prospects for African agriculture and farmers’ welfare are likely to remain bleak. A new core of farm managers is, however, emerging in many countries and they are capable of driving the sustainable mechanisation effort, together with suitable partners.

Unitrans Africa follows a strong partnership approach to delivering tailored end-to-end agricultural solutions. They assist farmers by bringing innovation and implementing mechanisation to key farming activities; delivering customised solutions to solve production issues; introducing new methodologies to drive efficiencies and support all parties in the achievement of goals.

Find out more about Unitrans Africa’s values of innovation, honesty, excellence, unity, safety and constancy, as well as their ability to provide comprehensive contributions to farming operations by contacting them via email.