The rural population involved in agriculture is aging at a faster rate compared to the urban population. Migration, lack of interest, and resources have contributed to this fact. Mechanizing agriculture can be one way to enable the aging population to remain active and bring new attention to the industry among youths.
Africa has the most significant number of youth in the entire planet, some of the most fertile soils, and most considerable potential for mechanization. If all three were combined and rightfully promoted, engaging youths in agriculture could be the area where youths can bring in the desired sustainability.
The potential is immense if you consider the overall agricultural value chain in developing countries. Value chains are crucial in many regards. For one, it organizes different components of agriculture and assists in planning production activities. It also connects farmers with the market. The third importance is that it creates value. Each step of a value chain creates a benefit. A threshing machine in Senegal, for example, can provide six times more paddy than manual production. A threshing machine costs about $5000, which is expensive. But 50% of Senegalese farmers use it. For the farmers, the mechanization adds real value.
Mechanization also reduces drudgery for women. Women of all age can be found in the developing world toiling long hours without rest. They plow lands, process tobacco, pick teas, spray fertilizers on fields, and also take care of households. Mechanization can help women to channel their hard work in diversifying and incrementing their productive activity. Also, the free-up of time provides an opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship.
It improves farm operations and processing of crops. Tractors are one instrument everyone talks about which changed the production activity in India. In Asia and the Pacific territory in 1980, there were eight tractors per 1000 ha, and this increased to 15 by 2003. In 1960, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania each had more tractors in practice than India (FAO, 2018). However, by 2005, India had 100 times more tractors in use than all three countries combined. Two-wheel tractors are very popular in most of the developing world. The innovative Hello Tractor, the Uber of agriculture, has demonstrated its effectiveness in Africa to fight poverty and scarcity in remote rural communities.
There are the simplest ways automation can bring change and contribute toward sustainability. In Bangladesh this year alone, 40% of tomatoes produced have been left to rot due to a lack of storage facilities. About 21 million MT of wheat is ruined each year due to inept storage and delivery systems (Chaturvedi et al. 2015). Streamlining storage to minimize labor and facility cost is another way mechanization can help reduce waste of product. The quality of stored crops may not be high and they may not keep as long, but the producer can try to at least break even in the cases mentioned above.
Food processing is another area where mechanization can bring in new jobs and reduce food waste. The focus has been on making snacks. But such automation should consider carefully market structure and how farmers see their product in the world market. Investment in the right direction can go a long way, but if not appropriately directed, it can create a wrong impression among the farming community. A good example can be the case in Lesotho.
Mechanization has the potential to connect different values chains with agriculture. Motorbikes reached the rural economy in developing countries much before tractors. When tractors came to South Asia, maintenance and repairs became an issue. Such repairs were carried out by the local motorbike mechanic, which is the purest example of how other value chains can link with agriculture.
The emergence of medium-scale farms with five to 1000 ha is a big driver which demands mechanization. Urbanization and dietary change toward processed food is another reason. On the contrary, mechanization possesses the risk of excluding small-scale farmers. Nevertheless, mechanization should be a top priority for countries and international development partner organizations, explicitly focusing on the appropriate ones. The appropriate ones are socially sustainable and should conceive all-inclusive mechanization pathways. There is also the need to prioritize mechanization in every segment of the agriculture value chain. To achieve this, increase investments in supporting the process is needed and the private sector must come on board.
Palash Sanyal is a professional in the field of sustainable development, environment and energy. He has worked with IFAD, TEDTalk, WaterAid Bangladesh and other non-government organisations. Palash specialises in innovative design process, behavioural change and transdisciplinary sustainability issues. He has more than five years of facilitation experience, facilitating controversial issues for Soliya, UNESCO, Harvard University, University of Saskatchewan and various other organisations. Twitter: @prsanyal.