The African continent is at an inflection point demographically. By the turn of this century, it is predicted that Africans will account for around 40 percent of the global population – up from less than 20 percent today and 10 percent a mere 50 years ago.

Such a dramatic shift over such a short period of time will require an enormous equivalent effort to sustainably increase the continent’s production of, and access to, nutritious food.

African farmers, especially smallholders, will need to achieve much higher yields than they do today. Fulfilling this will require concerted efforts across all aspects of the food system, but advanced crop innovations can make an important contribution, especially as growing conditions are becoming more extreme and erratic as a result of climate change.

And yet, many of the major 20th century crop advances have passed over Africa for various reasons: they mostly overlooked the so-called “food security” crops grown in Africa, such as cowpea, cassava and sorghum; they were not localized to Africa’s varied growing conditions, including soil types and weather patterns; or they could not be readily distributed due to a lack of market and rural infrastructure.

As a result, African crop yields typically languish behind other regions. For instance, cereal yields on the continent are half of those in India and only one-fifth of those in the United States.

Rapid recent developments in the application and precision of advanced agricultural technologies could change this landscape dramatically, and just in time. Improving the biology of crops offers solutions that are affordable, renewable and scalable for African smallholders.

The African landmass is massive. To put it into perspective, it is about as wide as South America is long, and roughly as long as the distance from Paris to Beijing. At the same time, Africa’s population is not only growing, but also urbanizing and developing a large middle class.

On both the supply and demand sides, it is an enormous opportunity. Thankfully, new technologies can allow the continent to leapfrog towards more efficient and sustainable production. Just as the sophistication of today’s mobile phones are a result of multiple technologies converging to overtake the use of landlines, so too are advanced agricultural innovations reaching a level of maturity with potentially profound implications for the continent’s food security.

In recent decades, the crop science sector has refined breakthroughs in breeding technologies, agronomic practices, and genetics to maximize and protect yields in a range of circumstances. Leveraging this suite of technologies – similar to cell phones leveraging telecommunications, micro-processing and data analytics – offers the promise of successive generations of improved crops optimized for Africa’s smallholder farmers and the varied agroecological conditions in which they farm.

One example is Nigeria’s adoption of pod borer-resistant cowpea, which uses biotechnology to help the crop naturally fend off one of its most pervasive pests, the Maruca pod borer. Before the cultivation of this improved variety, farmers who relied only on the cowpea’s natural resistance yielded on average a third of a ton of harvest per hectare. If they used costly insecticides, they could yield more than five times as much – around 1.7 tons per hectare – but also risked safety and environmental damage in the process. 

It took almost two decades of effort to develop and deliver this crop innovation to farmers in Nigeria, the largest cowpea producer in Africa. The 7.5 tons of available pod borer resistant seed were sold out in fewer than 10 days, and it is estimated that less than one percent of demand was satisfied. Yields averaged 1.4 tons per hectare – almost as much as had insecticides been widely used.

Research in northern Ghana by the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute showed that farmers there were highly supportive of PBR cowpeas, as were seed dealers and food processors.

Additional work under way now aims to add, or “stack”, additional beneficial traits to cowpea. Called “NextGen” cowpea for this reason, it will help the crop protect itself against weevils and mycotoxin contamination during storage.

As well as introducing protective traits, a range of other crop innovations are in the works to improve plants’ natural biological processes, such as photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, through genetic improvement.

Such innovations can help the continent’s farmers meet the urgent need to feed its growing population – and thrive – in the face of climate change. Doing so would be one of the great human accomplishments of all time.

Joe Cornelius, Ph.D., is the CEO of Bill & Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations (Gates Ag One). He has more than 30 years’ experience developing and launching new agricultural technologies, having previously served as a program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) in the U.S. Department of Energy and worked with several of the world’s largest life science companies.

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