4IR and Water Smart Agriculture in Southern Africa: A Watch List of Key Technological Advances

This paper considers the relevance of the recent wave of technological advances – so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies – for the agricultural sector in drought-prone countries of Southern Africa. The resulting ‘watch list’ of technologies covers three broad categories. First, in the biotechnology and genomics space, traditional selective breeding and transgenic modification (also known as GM) have recently been joined by gene-editing technologies like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which bring with it the promise of faster and cheaper development of drought-resistant cultivars and breeds. Second, sensors and the use of artificial intelligence have led to significant advances in precision agriculture – in essence expanding the smart cities movement to farms too. Better data and risk models also allow for the development of new agricultural insurance products, including for small-scale farmers. Third, controlled environment agriculture (including indoor farming and hydroponics) offer an opportunity to break free from the seasonal and climatic limitations that bind traditional farming. To date, however, this type of farming is only possible for certain niche crops. It also brings with it new challenges, including relating to energy efficiency. In conclusion, the paper argues that policymakers and farmers in the region should consider technology as a key tool in their climate adaptation toolbox.