The Mechanisation Of African Agribusiness

Despite the challenges that Africa faces in terms of ramping up mechanisation, its potential in this arena, especially given the current level of enthusiasm being displayed by governments and private investors, is undeniable. But what sort of equipment is best suited to Africa? It is true that simple tools, which require intensive use of manpower, […]


Despite the challenges that Africa faces in terms of ramping up mechanisation, its potential in this arena, especially given the current level of enthusiasm being displayed by governments and private investors, is undeniable. But what sort of equipment is best suited to Africa?

It is true that simple tools, which require intensive use of manpower, are still popular in Africa. The hoe, as a low-cost but important piece of agricultural apparatus for the clearing of land for planting, is a popular and, for many African farmers, staple tool. There is little doubt that this modest but indispensable piece of equipment will continue to be crucial for farmers across the region.

Moreover, hoes are the few agricultural items to be manufactured on a wide scale locally in Africa, although some hoes are imported, for example by Chillington, a leading British manufacturer of agricultural tools. Local manufacturers seek to compete directly with factory-produced hoes that are higher in price (but often equally higher in quality) by making alternatives from scrap steel.

The ard and muldboard plough are also two more traditional agricultural instruments used in Africa, mainly for primary tillage. Again, the secret to the ard’s popularity is its simple and low-cost design, which makes it easier to manufacture locally.

However, the muldboard plough is more sophisticated and, therefore, largely imported. It is widely used in Southern Africa, one of the most popular models being the Ransome Victory Plough, which was first introduced to the region in the 1920s.

Although the muldboard plough’s low price has been a serious attraction for small-scale farmers (the cost per unit is only between $100 and $200), and they are relatively easy to handle, they are believed to have some shortcomings in terms of soil degradation. Nonetheless, their popularity remains strong.

But higher technology equipment is also becoming more common. An example is low-cost irrigation technology equipment. As this report has already mentioned, treadle pumps have been particularly successful. “Significant numbers have been sold on a commercial basis,” states the FAO in a report on the technology. Since the usage of treadle pumps exploded in Bangladesh to half a million units, the manufacture and uptake of treadle pumps has spread to West, East and Southern Africa. While the designs are heavily based on the Bangladesh pump, they are tailored slightly for the African market. There are two main models – the suction pump, ideal for the transfer of large amounts of water, and the pressure pump, which is equipped with an outlet valve and can pump the water to higher heads.

Encouragingly, the success of the treadle pump has been partly spurred on by local manufacture: “One of the prerequisites for successful uptake is local manufacturing capacity. In most of the country reviews, pumps were initially imported into the country to take advantage of well-established designs. This was, however, quickly replaced with local manufacture,” says the FAO.

The units are also competitively priced at $50 to $120 per unit. And the successful growth of the treadle pump industry is at least in part the result of the fact that there has been much commercial focus on setting up adequate distribution networks, namely through the use of dealerships: “Sales through dealerships have proved to be by far the best mode of distribution,” according to the IFO.

Sprayers, used for spraying crops, are also an increasingly key piece of equipment for farmers on the continent. “There is a global trend on larger farms to replace pull-type sprayers towed by tractors, with faster and more versatile self-propelled sprayers,” says Johan van der Merwe, managing director of Northmec, the official Case IH distributor in South Africa.

“It is important when selecting spray application equipment to consider whether the sprayer has the latest technology, appropriate design features and suitable productive capabilities to meet the operation’s needs for at least the next five years. A common and costly mistake for farmers is to choose a sprayer that suits current requirements, but may not be appropriate for a growing operation.”

Equipment designed for Africa

Although, as this report has already pointed out, the uptake of more expensive, higher-technology equipment such as tractors is limited, encouraging growth can also be identified in this area.

Farmers seem most inclined to use tractors in places where large areas of land are available and there are labour shortages. Such equipment is also gaining popularity in countries where agricultural wages or investments in agriculture are rising and machinery, which reduces manpower requirements, thus has more appeal for cost-conscious farmers.

For example, the agricultural equipment company Case IH, which manufactures tractors, combine harvesters and specialised machines such as sugar cane and coffee harvesters, sprayers, cotton pickers, tillage and seeding equipment, has a strong presence in Africa and is involved in several mechanisation projects in large areas in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, where high-horsepower machinery is used. Today it is the leading player in Africa for combine harvesters and in the top two in the market for tractors above 165hp.

Interest in finding solutions to one of the big deterrents for African farmers when it comes to engine-powered machinery – high fuel prices – has spurred experimentation with hydrogen-powered tractors. Agricultural manufacturer New Holland is experimenting with such cutting-edge equipment. “The new hydrogen-powered tractor, the NH2™, the world’s first to be powered by hydrogen, has been designed to help farmers in the future cope with the increasing costs of fuel. We believe hydrogen technology will give farmers an independent supply of energy in the future. This is part of New Holland’s Clean Energy Leader programme, which also encompasses developments in fuel-efficient engines, use of biofuels, biomass and so on,” says Peter Askew, managing director of New Holland South Africa.

Moreover, perhaps one of the biggest hints to the potential business opportunities that Africa’s agricultural sector holds is the success which distributing companies are currently enjoying in the region and particularly South Africa, which represents one third of the total industry volumes of agricultural equipment.

In this respect, New Holland with its distributor New Holland South Africa, is a formidable example. It can count on a network of 42 dealers and 11 branches in Southern Africa and distributes agricultural products throughout South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

“We sell a wide variety of machinery. Broadly speaking the African market is largely made by simple and low-horsepower units which suit the need of the agribusiness in many countries. We sell simple, reliable and sturdy machines, with a long operating life and high uptime in the toughest conditions that New Holland produces – for example – in Turkey or India fully respecting its global quality standards.

“We also sell more advanced machinery which is used on large-scale areas or where needed. In either case, certified training courses and after sales assistance offer competent product knowledge to ensure the efficient use of equipment, correct maintenance procedures and the importance of using quality branded spares and accessories. All our branches and dealers have fully equipped workshops, spare parts and sales divisions,” says Peter Askew.
New suppliers enter the market

Another strong indication of the potential commercial opportunities that Africa’s agricultural sector offers is the increasing level of interest that emerging countries, which have undergone their own Green Revolutions, are showing in the continent.

Countries such as China, India and Brazil, armed with expertise, equipment and know-how from their own agricultural liftoffs are keen to provide the continent with much-needed state-of-the-art equipment to kick-start mechanisation. China is providing loans to African countries so that they can import farming equipment. For example, in March 2011, the China Development Bank offered a loan to Zimbabwe valued at nearly $342m to finance agricultural machinery imports from them.

Brazil has also invested millions in supplying African countries with farming equipment, including tractors, combine harvesters and irrigation equipment. Perhaps in competition with China, in 2011 it supplied Zimbabwe with almost $100m worth of equipment as part of its Food for Africa programme.

Indian manufacturers are similarly keen to break into the African market. The country has reportedly been especially eager to become a major supplier to the East African market using its regional links by establishing Dar es Salaam as an industrial hub for farming equipment. Mohan Exports of India has expressed interest in setting up a tractor assembly plant in Zambia, with a view to supplying the rest of the southern African region.

There are also a growing number of Indian firms exporting their farming equipment to the continent. This includes Megaconnect, based just outside New Delhi, which has been supplying African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal with a wide range of products, from weeders to seed drills.

While African countries still lack the capacity to manufacture more sophisticated equipment such as tractors, activity in South Africa indicates that there is potential for the continent’s only fully industrialised country to manufacture and distribute such products successfully.

One South African success story is Desmond Equipment, which has been making agricultural transport equipment since 1995, introducing new products on a yearly basis.

Another is Falcon Agricultural Equipment, based in KwaZulu-Natal. In operation since 1985, the company is the biggest manufacturer of rotary cutters in Africa. Its products include mowers, spreaders, mulchers, slashers and ploughs, tailored to South Africa’s tougher conditions. The company also has dealers in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. There is little doubt that Africa has some seeds to sow before it can enjoy a Green Revolution. And final solutions to the high costs of farming technology for farmers still remain elusive. But, with governments, international companies and local firms rising to the challenge, it seems the conditions are riper than they have ever been for the transformation in farming the continent needs.  

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