18 January 2023, Africa: This past December saw the long lineage of Precision Agriculture scientific meetings lead to an atypical, cross-continental 5-day conference in Africa. To my delight, it was also a rare occasion to see human matters occupying a full seat in the program.
The second iteration of the African Conference on Precision Agriculture (AfCPA) united 700+ attendees from 34 countries in their participation within a hybrid format originating from 11 in-person sites across Africa. I was fortunate to attend in-person at the main site in Nairobi, and experience first-hand how great conferences can feel – especially post-Covid, especially in a country as welcoming as Kenya (and yes, we did see about *40* different species of animals during our post-conference safari tour)!
Moving forward, in the front seat
My interest in the conference was not solely in the technical candy. I do enjoy hearing about the latest technological developments, from drones and imagery to decision support systems. What I look forward to the most, however, is the unusual. Specifically, what active roles can social sciences play in Precision Agriculture. This applied field has seen much progress, mostly of a technological nature. I investigate socio-technical gaps, a path less traveled that involves finding practical ways of building bridges between science and people.
Farmer-centric On-Farm Experimentation (OFE) is one of these pathways. I presented how farmers and researchers co-designing research and co-interpreting results represents the culmination of centuries of agronomic development. However, actively “braiding” the complementary forms of knowledge produced by science and by farming is still rarely promoted by scientific institutions. The first international conference dedicated to the topic, OFE2021, was only held last year.
This is why holding a full session at a prominent scientific meeting is very meaningful. A. Prof Louis Longchamps from Cornell University in New York state talked about the scientific urgency for On-Farm Experimentation. The follow-up discussion panel showcased contrasted experiences: Dr. Ivan Adolwa leading a large OFE program in 5 African countries, Davis Gathumbi with a business development background representing Producers Direct, and Dr James Taylor, Research Director at INRAE in southern France. All experiment with farmers, using varied digital tools.
Take-aways: from education to value creation
The panel discussed why OFE is needed across environments as different as smallholder coffee farms, broadacre cover-cropping or Mediterranean vineyards. The potential to foster critical thinkers through university courses bringing together students, teachers and farmers echoed earlier comments in the conference about how to engage the youth meaningfully in agriculture through the popular topic of Information and Communication Technologies. Perhaps the most important message was from Prof Simon Cook, reminding us that strategic directions must focus on the value proposition for OFE partners: how do we create value, together, through the power of our scientific tools.
For me, another take-away was that conferences do remain a privileged opportunity to catch a glimpse of varied farm realities (we visited a disease-free tea farm and a rice cooperative fighting cheap rice imports) while making potentially life-lasting connections. Certainly much must change with the formats of communicating science, as reminded by soil sciences Professor & Extension Specialist Brenda Ortiz, and exemplified by the riveting and boisterous speech by Farmer-Experimenter-Senator Robert Blair from Idaho! (which you must know, grows potatoes!)
All my thanks to the staff of APNI, the African Plant Nutrition Initiative, for organising a memorable event. My only regret is to not have been able to share the enthusiasm at Abidjan, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Tamale, Keffi, Pietermaritzburg, Lomé, Tunis, Kampala and Harare! Maybe next time…
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