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Egypt’s farmers are prepping the soil for a digital revolution

A farmer tends wheat in the El-Menoufia governorate, north of Cairo Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
The war in Ukraine disrupted Egypt’s wheat purchases last year
  • Technology can increase productivity and open up new markets
  • Germany’s development agency is aiding Egyptian smallholders
  • Local startups are working on low-cost tools and services

Agriculture may be the world’s least digitised industry. While machine learning and artificial intelligence are transforming many areas of our lives, in many countries farming is behind the curve.

“Agriculture has been slow to transform and that’s largely because it happens in rural locations and it’s also very fragmented,” said Andy Jenkinson, chief technology at Varda, an agriculture technology startup that operates a cloud-based data platform for farming and food.

This is starting to change, however – and not just in the mega-farming operations of the West.

In the Mena region, Egypt is taking a keen interest in digitalisation. The government’s Sustainable Agriculture Development Strategy 2030 envisages a decisive change in the way the country farms, with technology at the fore. 

The aim is to make Egypt’s agriculture sector competitive at the international level while enhancing domestic food security.

According to development agency USAID, the adoption of digital technologies will contribute to increased productivity, higher incomes, improved competitiveness and better market access for Egypt’s agriculture sector. 

The Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation has launched several digital initiatives. But there is one key challenge. 

“The big problem is that each crop is different,” said Jenkinson.

“The way it’s farmed in a country is different, depending on what the constrained resources are there. In Egypt, for example, it will be about water, so optimising irrigation will make a lot of sense.”

Development agencies are helping to drive innovation in Egypt. Germany’s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, or GIZ, is running a €7 million ($7.4 million) project designed to assist smallholders.

The agency’s partners in the country have developed agronomy apps that give farmers access to more information about customers as well as crops.

Digital technologies will enhance farming in Egypt. Picture: Creative Commons/Mohamed Kamal
Farming is one of the least digitised industries, but this is changing. Picture: Creative Commons/Mohamed Kamal

Hassan Elbadawy, a Cairo-based agri-digital solutions adviser at GIZ Egypt, told AGBI: “Our supported apps provide access to market information, such as information about crop pricing and how to sell their crops online.

“What is really important is sourcing their inputs online – the pesticides, fertilisers and seeds, which enables them to escape the monopoly of the traders that provide limited access to only a few products,”

The agency’s watchword is “simplicity”. 

“We’re trying to provide the simplest, most cost-effective ways of improving their lives, whether that be through devices that we can provide cheaply, such as the soil sensors and water sensors that help to cultivate and irrigate the land remotely,” said Ebladawy.

Smartphone access is critical, as is wider distribution of agronomic best practice.

”The more that we can do to increase access to both the physical products themselves, and the information and tools to enable them to plan effectively and manage operations, then the better,” said Jenkinson.

“That’s the big advantage the software has, in that it’s inherently very scalable.” 

GIZ has set up an AgTech Ecosystem to work with startups that are trying to provide solutions cheaply to farmers. It has graduated 20 so far and planning another 10 this year. 

One such business, Cairo-based Innovation Factory, has developed a small robot that can plant seedlings in the ground and do it more cheaply than manual labour. By hiring a robot just for the day, the farmer will get better, more accurate results and at a cheaper price than using traditional methods. 

Farmers are also in need of post-harvest and logistical support, said Elbadawy. “We’re looking to partner with companies that can provide that. For example, one of our partners — Mozare3 – is providing an online contract farming model.”

Mozare3 links Egypt’s smallholder farmers to buyers directly, on a contract-by-contract basis. Once a price is agreed, Mozare3 provides farmers with agronomy support and sources of financing for their inputs.

There is still a long way to go before digitalisation can make its impact felt in Egypt’s agriculture.  

“It can feel like a chicken and egg scenario,” said Elbadawy. “Do we help empower the ecosystem when the infrastructure is not there? Or do we wait for the infrastructure to roll out while we empower the system and work with the startups?”

The support for startups is one answer to that conundrum, matching the country’s entrepreneurial talent to a sector on which the majority of Egyptians’ livelihoods still depends.

As technology transforms Egyptians’ lives, its agriculture sector is unlikely to be left in the slipstream.