On the evening of 6 April 1994, a rocket fired from a hillside in Kigali hit the aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, igniting the last genocide of the 20th century. Twenty-five years later, in 2019, Rwanda is reborn, launching its first satellite, designed to support precision agriculture and to collect new meteorological data.
This rebirth was made possible by a combination of elements that until a few years ago had been simply unimaginable – technology and agriculture. According to the FAO, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion in 2050, and food production will have to increase by 70%. But how can we produce more food for all while reducing the impact on our planet? The solution is to apply new technology to agriculture, creating the same pairing that led to the launch of Seeds&Chips, the landmark global summit in the field of Food Innovation. The fifth meeting, held from 6 to 9 May at the Fiera Milano Exhibition Centre in Italy, focussed on Africa.
Why start with Africa?
It was inevitable, really. Demographically speaking, the continent facing the most dramatic food and energy problems – 600 million people in the sub-Saharan region do not have access to electricity and one in four suffers from malnutrition – is also the youngest, and 65% of its land area is yet to be cultivated. The world must look to the African giant to envisage a more sustainable future, also taking into account the effects of climate change on migration flows.
Our Group was the summit’s main sponsor; in fact, through Enel Green Power we are also Africa’s largest private operator in the renewable energies sector. In Milan, EGP’s CEO Antonio Cammisecra recalled the deep nexus that creates a circular link between water, food and energy. The lack of access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is a dramatic threat to food and water security, said Cammisecra. “According to projections the problem will only get worse between now and 2030, driven by population growth and urbanisation.” The continent’s future can only be assured by a new development model that integrates electricity, water and food, he explained, citing the benefits of renewable sources, not only for the climate but also regarding installation speed and simplicity as well as costs. “It has also been ascertained that investment in clean energy has a positive impact on at least ten of the 17 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” an effect that can clearly be seen with the EGP project at Metehara, Ethiopia.
New generations and technology: the role of precision agriculture
However, Africa’s lack of development can also be an opportunity, as it makes it possible to avoid the mistakes made in other regions of the world, like the use of fossil fuels and the intensive exploitation of resources.
This leads to the key role played by technical innovation, which already offers many advantages in precision agriculture, a rapidly growing sector that ranges from precision farming (GPS sensors, drones and satellites to monitor the land, crops and livestock) to the use of robots and artificial intelligence in sowing and logistics, and biotechnology to make plant varieties more resistant, preserving biodiversity, increasing yields without extending the amount of land cultivated and reducing water consumption and the effects of parasites. All these technologies demand the availability of energy.
“There’s a close relationship between energy and innovation,” said Yvonne Lokko, Industrial Development Officer for UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation). “Take, for example, the cold chain technology for preserving meat and fish, or the development of solar powered cold stores, especially in rural areas where there is no access to the electricity grid.”
In the words of Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition Limited, “Precision agriculture offers huge potential not only for Nigeria, my home, but also for Africa as a whole. It makes farming methods smarter – the amount of fertilisers and water used for irrigation, for example – and makes cultivation more efficient. One of the barriers, though, is the cost of technology. At the moment it’s prohibitively expensive for many farmers.”
Some look to the example of the EU’s agricultural strategy as a model of collaboration between nations, and some recall that during the colonial era Africa exported food all over the world, and could once again become the “bread basket of the world”. Others, like Nigeria’s former president and farmer Olusegun Obasanjo, emphasise the influence of the financial world. “The price of cocoa is fixed at the London Stock Exchange, even though Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast are responsible for 70% of the world production.” According to Donald Kaberuka, the seventh president of the African Development Bank Group, Africa may provide “an opportunity for the entire world. Don’t just think about what you see in the Mediterranean, think of us as partners: you don’t have to do something for us, but with us.”
It should also be remembered that the new generations are enthusiastic about new technology, says Tomi Davies, president of ABAN (African Business Angels Network), while Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director General Climate and General Resources of the FAO, points out that, “the demographic element is a factor driving innovation. Technology applied to agriculture can attract back to the countryside the young people who currently go to the city to study.”
The sustainability culture
Seeds&Chips had the merit of bringing Africa back to the centre of the global agenda on the future of food. “We can’t talk about food and sustainability if Africa doesn’t have a place at the table,” said Marco Gualtieri, founder and chairman of the summit. Sustainability was the most frequently heard word in the pavilions hosting the event, at the centre of which were parked the 17 colourful containers that will travel around the world to promote the UN’s SDGs.
“Zero hunger isn’t just one of 2030 Agenda's sustainable development goals: it’s a fundamental human right,” stressed Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, recalled the relationship between food education and obesity and the support for the 3-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura’s Food for Soul project. Mr Bottura has opened community kitchens across the world to draw attention to the issues surrounding food waste.
Antonella Santilli, Head of sustainability for Enel Green Power, explained that the sustainability culture also means raising awareness among consumers of what type of energy companies use to produce the goods they buy. She went on to point out that many large groups have joined RE100, the global alliance that commits its members to reduce their environmental impact by sourcing 100% of their energy needs from renewable sources. “We should debunk some of the myths surrounding renewables – they are not more expensive than energy from traditional sources.”
Seeds for the future
Seeds&Chips has lived up to its name, planting many seeds in the soil of the future. One example is the launch of the FIHNK (Food Innovation Hub Network) project, which aims to set up 10 Food Innovation Hubs in the same number of African countries between now and 2030. The hubs will act as platforms to promote links between the various players in the food system – farmers above all, but also innovators, investors, foundations, public and private companies, NGOs and institutions.
The Milan event has already begun to build the network, also reprising the Give me Five! format to place young startuppers in contact with the top managers of large companies, giving the young innovators five minutes to make their pitch and receive advice in return.
As the summit concluded, Enel Green Power presented the US startup Farm from a Box with the award for the “Nourishing the nexus through innovation” category. Its project involved reinventing community agriculture by making it more efficient, more productive and more environmentally friendly through the use of a container powered by renewable energy.
The youngsters of “Generation Greta”, 13-19-year-old “teenovators” from five continents, introduced the different thematic sections, describing ideas and projects to safeguard the planet. If the Native American proverb that says “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” is true, then it is our children’s voices we must listen to above all.