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AfricaDays 2018 Plants Seeds for Future

Almost 400 people braved the national rail strikes and bleak weather to attend the second edition of AfricaDays devoted this year to the assimilation of technology in the continent’s agriculture. “The Green Revolution 2.0” gathered specialists, students, researchers and witnesses of Africa’s biggest employer and a key sector for its development in the 21st century.

Wairimu Muthike, Business Development Director of ACRE Africa, winner of the inaugural HEC-OCP Award for Best African AgTech Startup - HEC Paris AfricaDays 2018

The organizers of this second Africa Days on April 3 could hardly have imagined a more challenging timeline: despite the number of people enrolled, over 600, the first day of France’s national rail strike made the Jouy-en-Josas campus a daunting venue to reach for many of the participants in AfricaDays 2018. Yet, they rolled in to enjoy a dense, cliché-breaking evening devoted to the fertile topic “What does the future hold for African agriculture?”

“This year’s edition had an even better format than the 2017 version,” confided Christian Kamayou, founder of MyAfricanStartup, after the conference. “It was more focused and concrete on a subject which is at the heart of African development and the challenges we face. Don’t forget, 65% of the continent’s workforce is in this sector. But tonight’s event wasn’t just about agriculture. There was also a focus on the technology needed to answer the growing demands of a population set to double in the next 30 years. And since this will impact the continent’s youth enormously, it was fitting that young HEC students should be at the forefront of tonight’s exchanges.”

Indeed, three HEC Grande Ecole students hailing from Casablanca shared their 2017 Seed Project with the audience in the Blondeau auditorium, describing the ambitious research think-tank they have initiated devoted to technology in agriculture (AgTech) and its possible impact on Africa. “Our gap year began with a two-month trip to Cameroon, Ethiopia and Kenya,” described Fadel Bennani, the charismatic co-founder of the think-tank. “We studied the challenges the farmers face in a sector which is the least digitalized in society. Our Seed Project researched the reasons behind the problems of infrastructure, exploitation, profit. By comparing African agriculture with its equivalent in countries as far-flung as Brazil or Indonesia, we assessed the potential impact AgTech can have on the continent. Now, we are exploring how innovation can answer the greatest production challenge of its history.” In the course of their exposé, the student praised the guidance of HEC Entrepreneurship Center Director Etienne Krieger who provided the methodology for the team of five students to establish their project. Their work is set to be extended by a team constituting The Seed Project 2019 who were also present. Attending the presentation, Ivorian Ambassador Charles Gomis said his country would support the students next year and called for more backing from companies at the event.

Africa Redefines Market Rules

The evening’s moderator Bertrand Moingeon did not couch the daunting obstacles that lay in front of the continent’s quest for self-sufficiency and development: “At present, Africa only produces a third of its food needs and so it must import 30 billion euros worth of agricultural products every year. And this is set to quadruple by 2030! How can a continent, dubbed the world’s bread basket, reverse this trend?”

In the evening’s second of four debates, entitled “The startups revolutionizing African Agriculture”, Jean-Rémi Gratadour suggested possible options: “We’ve seen that coding has become a great equalizing force in the world,” said the Executive Director of the HEC Digital Center, “no more so than in Africa. They have shown in the past how they can redefine the rules of the market and they can do so again.”

This innovative spirit is the driving force behind a ranking created by The Seed Project consisting of their 50 top African Agtech startups. One of them, ACRE Africa (Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Ltd.), was actually present at AfricaDays 2018 in the form of Wairimu Muthike, the company’s Head of Business Development. Muthike had jetted in from her native Kenya to receive the inaugural HEC - OCP Award for Best African AgTech Startup. The award includes the acquisition of the prestigious HEC Executive online certificate on strategy. The social business Muthike has helped run since 2010 has expanded from a small project for 185 local farmers to a registered insurance intermediary and agent for over 1 million farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. They have successfully set up inexpensive and easy-to-apply insurance products which shield farmers from the East African region against unpredictable weather conditions. “I’m delighted to accept this prize. It rewards our work as we leverage expertise and ally technology with broad-based partnerships,” she told the audience. ACRE Africa aims to catalyze the full potential of African agriculture “by eliminating the stress and potential damage of climate variables for farmers across the entire continent.”

A Rainbow Revolution for Africa’s Agriculture

Patrick Caron cautioned against a reductionist vision however, insisting that solutions like the ones suggested by ACRE Africa need to be as adaptable and diverse as Africa’s populations and ethno-linguistic cultures. “I don’t call it a green revolution, but a rainbow revolution with at least 54 colors,” said the former Director General in charge of research and strategy at France’s CIRAD agricultural research and international cooperation organization. At present, Caron is the Chair of the High Level Panel  of the UN Committee for World Food Security, CFS. “Africa demands different solutions which combine fantastic innovation adapted to each context,” he pursued in one of the stand-out contributions of the evening. “Very much like the mobile telephone in which Africans leaped over stages we painfully clambered through, their leaders have to modify their policies according to the local realities in agriculture which is in urgent need of evolving.” In the face of the complexity and diversity of the agricultural landscape, Caron warned against the dearth of African researchers in the field (“500-1,000 times fewer per farmer, than in the rest of the world,” he noted), and called on the international community to help the continent answer the challenges posed by 30 million youth arriving on the job market every year.

“The debates organized by AfricaDays 2018 truly made this a learning event,” said Bertrand Moingeon after the three hour conference ended. “Africa’s agricultural future is one of humanity’s fundamental issues. The leaders and experts in the panels built on the research presented by the HEC students in the Seed Project, to show that concrete solutions exist to create a “green revolution 2.0”. But this revolution requires us to rethink the good governance of the African agricultural ecosystem while respecting its wealth and diversity.”

A similar warning was issued by Henriette Gomis-Billon, the vivacious Director of Sustainable Development for Côte d’Ivoire’s SIFCA Group. She insisted that any plans for greater productivity must respect transparent and rigorous norms on the environment: “We are running out of fertile land,” she told the audience, “and this, despite working hand-in-hand with local crop-growers in the fields of sugar cane, palm oil and rubber. In the cases of palm oil and rubber, these village plantation provide 70% or more of our production. Our challenge is to guide them towards healthy agricultural practices which do not deplete the soil.”

South-South Collaborations

Karim Lotfi Senhadji believed his company’s century-long experience stands it in good stead in facing down the challenges in this ecosystem. He is the Director General of OCP Africa, a subsidiary to OCP Group, Morocco’s flagship exporter of phosphate products like fertilizers. “Our long experience in the value chain for phosphates can be generalized to all fields of agriculture,” he said. “And our company has modernized with our digital transformation. Moreover, our size and reputation allows us to enjoy a strong mindset when working on partnerships with the likes of IBM, or when negotiating with Bretton Woods institutions.”

OCP made it clear that it has faith in the new generation of students and researchers coming through the ranks of schools like HEC Paris. This was reflected by the sponsoring of The Seed Project and the backing of AfricaDays 2018. But its main commitment has been closer to home, according to Karim Senhadji: “We are investing heavily in R&D, developing both our accelerators and our incubator at the University Mohamed VI. However, I must stress that the African farmer remains at the heart of the group’s strategy. We have experimented new cheaper fertilizers with Ethiopian farmers, for example, increasing corn harvests there by 37%.”
“Most vitally,” Senhadji concluded, “we are working on processing Africa’s raw material on the continent itself. This epitomizes our South-South philosophy. There have been successful pilot projects in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire this year and we will implement another in Rwanda next year.”

Recycling at the Heart of Agriculture…and Fashion

Outside the Blondeau auditorium, the entrance had been transformed into a colorful array of sights, sounds and smells from West Africa and its diaspora. Participants toyed with the kola nuts and the palm oil offered by SIFCA of Côte d’Ivoire. They tested the refined juices and jams of Joe & Avrels or the diversity of sugars made in Côte d’Ivoire. They enjoyed plates of Senegalese mafé and yassa plates offered by Fati Niang’s Black Spoon catering service, served to the rhythms conjured by the talented Magou Samb trio from Senegal , and the world of music offered by homegrown talent DJ Soukous. Once over, participants debated the highlights of the evening in the hope the AfricaDays initiative would be renewed. “I was surprised at how rich debates on the agricultural sector could be,” said third year Grande Ecole student Arnaud. Two other students retained the importance of the South-South solutions proposed during the debate by OCP to answer agricultural problems hurting the continent. “The questions of access to resources, the environment, locally-produced fertilizers, transformation of raw material… all these are being tackled with a lot of imagination and audacity, and that’s uplifting.”

A graduate from HEC’s Stand-Up program, Ramata Diallo, was surprised by the number of original agricultural initiatives taken to avoid the pitfalls experienced in the West. Although she is more involved in consultancy for designers and fashion entrepreneurs - with her recently created fashion consulting agency -, the French entrepreneur of Guinean origin believes the event revealed a common philosophy: recycling. Ramata Diallo elaborated: “With 54 nations, you can’t generalize about the continent. But in both the fashion and the food sectors, there seems a natural African tendency to banish waste, to invest in only what is necessary, to recycle (used cloths in one, food products in the other), to exploit everything, to upcycle. All these engrained habits are so far from the consumer society we live in here. They point to a healthier future for the planet.”

Africa’s anti-waste philosophy as a galvanizing force for the future of agriculture? A concept which the AfricaDays 2018 organizers from HEC’s International Affairs Department would be happy to espouse. Its director, François Collin, said he was delighted with the overall results of the second edition: “AfricaDays is an excellent opportunity to combine skills and knowledge culled on the field. Tonight’s debates clearly confirm that we have embarked on the right path by providing a space for exchange between HEC students and people with the means to change policies and mentalities.”