By Egab, Quartz Africa
CAIRO - Initiatives using new technologies for agriculture have recently emerged to support farmers dealing with the impacts of climate change in Egypt.
Global warming stands to curb food production as farmland becomes more susceptible to higher temperatures and lower rainfalls in a country where 25% of the labor force is employed in agriculture.
The new services offer weather forecasts, in addition to advice on irrigation, fertilizers, and market needs. But while some are quick to adopt new ways of cultivating, others find it hard to let go of millenia old traditions.
Technology or tradition?
In 2013, the Egyptian ministry of agriculture and land reclamation (MALR) together with the World Food Programme with funding from the adaptation fund, initiated the building resilient food security systems to benefit the southern Egypt Region.
With a mobile app, available on Play Store, this program equips farmers with weather predictions for up to five days and issues irrigation, fertilization, and other climate change adaptation guidelines based on the crop type, location, and cultivation date.
The project team goes around villages, introducing their app and services to farmers.
53-year-old Khaled Al Azab, owner of a feddan of land (1.03 acres) in the Al Baghdadi village, in Luxor, 700km south of Cairo, was one of the first people in his village to use the app. “We were all skeptical at first, but now, I cannot imagine my life without an early warning climate system,” Al Azab tells Quartz.
“Last year, a hesitant neighbor agreed to plant half of his crop using the climate-resilient sorghum strain recommended on the app, and the other half using the conventional one. One day, an hour after we had watered his field, half his crop was uprooted by an unexpected gust of wind. Only the climate-resilient strain survived.” This turned Al Azab into a believer.
The project still suffers from the hesitance of many farmers. So far, it operates in 55 villages across five governorates: Assiut, Sohag, Qena, Luxor, and Aswan, according to Dr. Aly Hozain, the chairman of the board for the executive agency for comprehensive development projects at the ministry of agriculture.
“The project has introduced villagers to modern and green agricultural methods such as wheat cultivation on terraces, laser land-leveling, machine-assisted harvesting, in addition to optimized and solar-powered irrigation. Our practices have saved farmers 20 to 30% of their water usage,” he adds.
Operating over a total area of 900 feddans, the sustainable agriculture investments and livelihood project (SAIL) was established in 2016 by the MALR with funding from the international fund for agricultural development (IFAD).
The project has its own early warning climate system, delivering information to subscribed farmers in a simple language via SMS. It relies on five meteorological stations that collect data and run it by global and regional models to verify it, combining long and short-term trends to ensure there aren’t any errors.
“Our reach expands to over 5,000 farmers in vulnerable communities. However, more farmers benefit from our early warning climate system through word of mouth,” Dr. Hany Darwish, executive manager of SAIL, tells Quartz.
“The unpredictability of climate change in agriculture could lead to major economic losses. What happened last year with mangos [a heat wave shriveling mangos] is an example. If farmers had known this earlier and were provided with instructions to deal with the situation, the outcome would have been different,” Tarek Abdelmonem, regional environment and climate officer at IFAD, says.
The project introduces sustainable agriculture to residents in rural areas by raising awareness and building an extensive infrastructure. It offers a complete development agenda with free advice about cultivating and community-led marketing using refrigerated vans to transfer products to local markets in neighboring villages. But SAIL is still only available to a small number of farmers on the national level, and requires more resources to expand.
As part of its work to support the participants in the project, SAIL offers grants for women in rural areas to get training and funding to start small businesses in order to have a more diversified income.
Rasha Salem, 37, is one of the participants who received the grant. She lives in Mitobus, Kafr El Sheikh, an impoverished village about 130km north of Cairo.
“People here are marginalized, and most of us have nothing. They [SAIL] came to the village once and saw its state and got to know us better,” she says.
“The whole village now uses the program one way or another. Everyone is on WhatsApp groups to share the information coming from it, even those who are not participating. It has impacted the lives of everyone in our community.”
Salem applied for a grant from SAIL and received funding for a beekeeping business. “So far, the business has been generating little funds, but I am excited about the future,” she says, “my neighbors now only buy honey from me.”
Founded in 2020, Agtech startup, Mozare3, which currently serves up to 3,000 users, uses artificial intelligence to bridge the gap between farmers and markets, according to its communication lead, Radwa El Amir.
“Let’s say we find a market need for bell peppers or potatoes. Mozare3 provides farmers with access to these markets, so that they’re raising crops for a manufacturer, and not solely farming for the sake of it,” she says.
What makes Mozare3 different from other startups like Zr3i, which uses satellite technology to provide crop data to farmers, or Fresh Source which connects farmers to businesses, is that it uses contract farming, agreeing with farmers on the type of crop, the farming area, and how many tons they will buy.
Before sowing the first seed, farmers receive an advance in the form of saplings, fertilizers, and pesticides.
“We are the partners of the farmer, only taking profit after the crop is sold, and throughout the cycle, we provide technical as well as agricultural supervision, field visits, and around-the-clock support,” El Amir says. “The application’s financial cycle is faster, more secure, and more guaranteed than the conventional cycle, and it provides an overall supply chain that manufacturers can trust,” she adds.
“Recently, I have become weary of cultivating my land. Over the years, I have had several bad experiences. Saplings were not of great quality, pesticides were substandard, and merchants bought the yield at a price lower than that of the market,” Ahmed Mohammed Ali, 32, a farmer in Samalut, Al-Minya, 250 km South of Cairo, tells Quartz.
“Mozare3 made things easier for me. Everything was of superb caliber, from the fertilizers and pesticides to climate-resilient strains and agricultural assistance,” he adds. “I am harvesting in 10 days, and everything looks good so far.”
As a data-driven startup, Mozare3 analyzes long and short-term climate patterns, and based on the findings, the application provides climate-resilient strains to farmers. With on-the-ground seminars and text messages, they also raise awareness, give insights on different crops and why they should be cultivated.
But with more than 12,000 farmers waiting in the pipeline to join Mozare3's roster, scaling up is posing a considerable challenge to the agtech startup.
“We’re doing our best on the climate change front, but we cannot do this by ourselves. It needs to be a collective effort,” El Amir says.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Dr Hozain saying, “Our practices have saved farmers 20 to 50% of their water usage,” instead of “Our practices have saved farmers 20 to 30% of their water usage.”
This story is written by Mohamed Kotb and published in collaboration with Egab, a media startup that helps young local journalists from across the Middle East and Africa get published in regional and international media outlets, with a focus on solution journalism.