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Business

In Davos, for Africa's farmers

New trends in agriculture threaten to put farmers in developing countries out of work. This is not as bad as it sounds, believes Ishmael Sunga, the chief executive of the SACAU farmers' association.

Ishmael Sunga is the CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agriculture Unions (SACAU), a non-profit farmer organization representing 17 agricultural unions in 12 countries. SACAU is based in Pretoria, South Africa.

DW: For somebody, who works with African farmers, what's the point of coming to Davos, the meeting of the financial elite?

Ishmael Sunga: I see the World Economic Forum as a platform through which we can get a lot of knowledge and information about what the future may hold for us, so we are able to prepare for it. I get insights into what mainstream industry is doing, on the driving forces that are shaping the future. And I try to locate agricultural development within that.

In Davos, new technologies and automation are often heralded as solutions for farming. But if industrial methods are applied to small- scale farming, traditional ways of farming become obsolete, and many farmers and laborers risk losing their jobs and livelihoods. What do you make of it?

I agree to that. But there is also another side of this story. It's a good thing to make something obsolete that is not really nice. Some people think that smallholder farming is an attractive proposition. In my view, most of small-scale farming is really just showing desperation and destitution. So if automation and new technologies are able to disrupt that, if they bring a better solution - then that is a good thing.

But all these farmers, who would lose their livelihoods, would then need new and different jobs...

Indeed. But it is not the responsibility of agriculture to deliver jobs. It is the responsibility of nations and industries to work together and deal with the issue of jobs. For many people, the traditional way of farming seems romantic. But traditions also need to change with the times. If not, they become redundant.

You said you come to Davos to learn about new approaches and what they might mean for African farmers. Could you give me an example of something you've learned here?

Last year, the World Economic Forum focused on the fourth industrial revolution and the convergence of man and machine. I see a lot of application of these ideas for agriculture, and some are already happening. Farmers already have smartphones to stay in touch with relations in different parts of the world. But often, they are not using their gadgets to do agriculture better.

They could use them to get real-time information which would enable them to make investment decisions. When should they apply fertilizer, when will it be raining? There is enormous potential there to improve their quality of life. It could be used on a wider scale and at a faster speed, at a very cheap cost. In my view, these things can be triggered by getting ideas from platforms like Davos. Sometimes, we do not need to invent things, we just need to copy and adapt what others are doing.