Highlights from the West African Forum on Precision Agriculture
Globally, the concept of precision agriculture (PA) has evolved since the early 1990s. Nonetheless, to many, PA seems irrelevant in the West African context where smallholder farmers rely on subsistence and cash cropping. However, the basic principle of PA, which is to provide spatial and temporal information to reduce uncertainty, is independent of technology and scale. In fact, some strategies within PA may prove essential to the sustainability of West African agriculture in the face of increasing pressure and risk related to climate change.
In this context, the African Plant Nutrition Institute (APNI) organized, in partnership with the University of Cape Coast (UCC), the West African Forum on Precision Agriculture (WAFPA), a 2-day event on 11-12 February 2020, to discuss the current state and future of PA in West Africa. Information on status, opportunities, and challenges of PA in West Africa were gathered through presentations from PA experts representing Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo. The PA experts’ presentations guided brainstorming sessions to scope opportunities, challenges, and mechanisms needed to move from information availability to innovative, information-driven, transformative solutions for West African smallholder farmers.
The International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA) recently defined PA as:
“…a management strategy that gathers, processes, and analyzes temporal, spatial, and individual data and combines it with other information to support management decisions according to estimated variability for improved resource use efficiency, productivity, quality, profitability, and sustainability of agricultural production.”
Considering this definition, several valuable pieces that form the foundation of PA for West Africa have already been laid over the past decades. Several of these PA practices relevant for improving yield and water-use efficiency were highlighted during the WAFPA presentations. For example, site-specific nutrient management, fertilizer micro-dosing, and seed priming have been extensively tested in Benin and Burkina Faso. Fertilizer deep placement technology has been introduced in irrigated rice production systems in Burkina Faso and Senegal for nitrogen (N) fertilizer management with significant effects on yield and reduction of N losses. In particular, site- and crop-specific nutrient management have been applied to perennial tree crops such as oil palm, cocoa, and rubber in Cote d’Ivoire by adapting fertilizer rate according to the age of plant and agroecological zones. Across West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Senegal), drip irrigation and solar powered irrigation have been used as PA practices to account for site-specificity in crop water demand with the aim to optimize water use and increase productivity of crops such as vegetables, sugar cane, rubber, and oil palm in the face of a changing climate. In Burkina Faso, zaï technology, a planting basin, has been used to create a water- and nutrient-rich micro-environment for cereals.
PA examples from Benin. Top: Micro-dose (bottle cap) of fertilizer application to maize plant. Middle: Deep placement of urea super granules in rice improves N use efficiency. Bottom: Zaï technique of planting basins create a favorable, nutrient-run environment (I. Serme photos).
Various stakeholders have undertaken implementation of PA tools in West Africa. Soil testing for precision nutrient management remains uncommon in the sub-region; however, digital mapping of soil fertility attributes to update fertilizer recommendations is going on in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo. Near infrared (NIR) spectroscopy has been used for analyzing physical and chemical properties of soils in Senegal and quick, on-site, non-destructive detection of crop vigor and quality in Ghana. Satellite and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) imageries have not been deployed as much in smallholder farm management compared with larger-scale operations. Nevertheless, private agribusiness startups, national agricultural research systems (NARS), and universities are using satellite or drone imagery for land use classification, crop canopy and density mapping (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Senegal), field observation, leaf color, soil quality, plant disease and stress detection (Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Senegal), and pesticide spraying (Benin, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal). ICT-based irrigation has started in Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire to enhance irrigation efficiency and crop water use through precision water management. A number of smallholder farmers in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, are digitally connected and benefit from climate and market information via mobile devices and agricultural apps. Nutrient management decision support tools that permit site-and crop-specific fertilizer recommendations have been parameterized and evaluated for targeted growing environments in the sub-region, e.g. Nutrient Expert (Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo), Rice Advice (Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Senegal), Fertilizer Optimizer (Burkina Faso and Nigeria), and Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer (DSSAT)-Cropping System Models (CSM) (Benin, Nigeria, Ghana, and Togo).
PA examples from Ghana: University of Cape Coast trains students om drone-related issues and provides precision farming information to farmers (M. Bosompem photos).
Across the sub-region, smallholder farms are extremely variable, not only due to biophysical factors but also due to variation in labor, income, production orientation, cultural norms, and wealth. Thus, PA based on site-specific information is a way of addressing the variability and minimizing decision errors. The sub-region has the human resources anwd institutional infrastructure (universities, NARS, and agribusiness startups); extensive work on soil fertility and nutrient management (Integrated Soil Fertility Management and 4R Nutrient Stewardship); and a demonstrated interest in new technologies (mobile phones, sensors, and drones) that could sustain the development of PA. Contrariwise, implementation of PA could be challenging due to several factors including: a lack of mechanization, low technical know-how, limited capital, high cost of PA tools, data accessibility, poor quality of data sets, erratic power supply, poor collaboration among stakeholders, social barriers, and lack of policy on PA.
Considering the existing PA practices, opportunities, and challenges that were reported during the WAFPA, the local experts concluded that several steps needed to be taken in West Africa to advance PA in the region. These steps included the following:
- Embrace digital soil mapping for fertilizer recommendations
- Use site-specific fertilizer blends
- Promote research centers devoted to PA
- Introduce PA into curricula at universities
- Develop PA training materials for farmers and technicians
- Close knowledge gaps through capacity building
- Conduct pilot studies on PA
- Set up on-farm demonstrations of PA
- Create an African association of PA stakeholders
- Encourage government policies that support PA adoption
In both the short and long terms, PA innovation was also determined to have tremendous potential to result in positive change for agricultural production in West Africa. Examples include the use of remote-sensing information based on drone technologies and ground and aerial sensors, application of PA practices to address climate change issues, mechanization of agriculture, and by focusing on cooperatives and service providers who are able to afford the technology and deploy it for individual farmers.
Precision Agriculture is essential for smallholder farmers in West Africa to enhance crop productivity, profitability, and resource use efficiency in the face of the prevailing complexity of soil-plant-climate systems. The WAFPA effectively assembled experts from West Africa to discuss the current state and future of PA. It was recommended by the participants that the WAFPA be expanded to a larger scale to include other relevant stakeholders representing the agricultural value chain such as financial entities and policy makers. The results of this forum will influence the content of future conferences and workshops, PA research projects, and capacity building efforts needed to support PA in West Africa.
APNI Contributors: Kokou Adambounou Amouzou, Program Coordinator and Steve Phillips, Principal Scientist