Ephraim Kofi Kenney does not like to work in the fields scaring pests away. But today he must.
A flock of migratory birds repeatedly invaded his parents’ rice plot outside Accra and the 16-year-old has been tasked with keeping the invaders away from the young crop.
If he fails, there will be no harvest on the half hectare farm this season.
“This work makes me tired. I can lose my voice shouting at the birds,” said the youth, tugging at a rope attached to a bell to scare off the birds.
“I wish there was a way to make it easier.”
Nearby, farmers and researchers are experimenting with a possible answer: A drone that can help farmers protect crops from the effects of climate change and ward off birds at the same time.
In a project run by the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) rice farmers are taught to use drones to carry out jobs including spraying fertilizer efficiently and mapping scarce water sources, said George Madjitey, CEO of GEM Industrial Solutions.
There is a bonus: The drones emit a noise to keep birds undoing the farmers’ hard work, said Madjitey, whose social enterprise is one of the local firms supplying drones for the project.
The drones cannot operate all the time – but they help cut down on the need for work like Kenney’s, which keep young people away from their studies.
As climate change brings more unpredictable and extreme weather, small-scale farmers are increasingly turning to technology to find ways to keep their farms sustainable, agricultural experts say.
While drones are a staple in farming tool kits in many parts of the world, Ghana’s rice farmers are for the first time learning how the devices can help adapt to prolonged droughts.
With dry spells killing crops and drying natural sources of food across Africa, migratory birds spend more time feeding on grain fields they come across because they don’t know how long it will be before their next meal, said Kunga Ngece, a Nairobi-based development expert.
According to Madjitey, a single drone can scare away birds on a farm as large as 1.2 hectares.
“The drone makes work easier for farmers because it operates over a wide range of land. Also, children are able to stay at home and do homework instead of being on the farm,” he said.
According to Ghana’s minister of food and agriculture, Owusu Afriyie Akoto, about 80% of the country’s farmers have been impacted by drought this year.
Crop yields dropped by about seven percent since a decade ago and the country loses more than $200 million every year to drought and flooding, he said during the 2019 African Green Revolution Forum in Accra.
Since the CTA launched its Eyes in the Sky, Smart Techs on the Ground project in Ghana three years ago, starting with cassava and cashew nut farmers, more than 2 800 farmers in rural Ghana have become involved, Madjitey said.
Rice farmers have been included since September, he said.
When farmers join, they organise into co-operatives of about 100 people. Each co-operative pays for, uses and maintains a set of drones, which can cost upwards of $1,000 each, he said.
The farmers are grouped by neighbourhood, so a single drone covers two or three farms each time it flies, he said.
Usually, one or two farmers in each co-operative are trained to use the drones and they operate the devices for all the farmers in the group, he added.
“This ensures the technology reaches as many as possible,” Madjitey said, at an irrigation project in Kpong, one village in the drone effort.
The use of drones in agriculture is part of a global move toward technical innovations allowing farmers to work faster and more efficiently.
According to a report on digitalisation of agriculture in Africa published by the CTA in June, technology can be a “game changer” supporting and accelerating the industry continentally.
“With so much at stake, it is no surprise most African countries prioritise agricultural transformation as a key pillar of their national strategies,” added the report.
Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which works with small-scale farmers, said the continent’s farmers have long lagged the rest of the world when it comes to technological innovation.
“Africa has been going round and round in circles, but digital innovations present an opportunity to change. Drones are helping farmers solve complex problems in a simple way,” Kalibata told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For example, she noted, drones can be used to collect field data – such as crop inventories or the status of irrigation infrastructure – over a wide area.
This data can help farmers and policymakers plan for and adapt to the ongoing effects of climate change, she said.
Helping farmers adapt to climate change presents new business and job opportunities, said Giacomo Rambaldi, head of the drone project at CTA.
Since its launch, Eyes in the Sky has worked with business start-ups run by young people in more than 20 African countries, he explained.
The project trains youth in rural areas to operate agribusinesses, such as creating and selling innovations to improve production for smallholder farmers.
“Some are doing well. They employ people and have successful operations,” said Rambaldi.
One reason drone technology has not seen more uptake among African farmers is many African countries either have no laws regulating the operation of drones or ban their use by civilians, he noted.
In countries like Ghana where drone technology is allowed some farmers are seeing benefits.
As well as saving time and labour, farmers point out drones cut down on health risks associated with being in daily contact with chemicals on crops and microbes in muddy fields.
“Drones take away these discomforts,” said Susan Fiebor, a farmer in Asutsuare.