Emerging Technologies

Is cellular agriculture the next big leapfrog for East Africa?

Could cellular agriculture transform East Africa?

Could cellular agriculture transform East Africa? Image: Damian Patkowski on Unsplash

Didier Toubia
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Aleph Farms
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  • Food systems in East Africa are underdeveloped.
  • Smallholder farming and new methods of production can complement each other to optimize East Africa's overall protein ecosystem.
  • By leapfrogging intensive agriculture, East African nations can meet their populations' demand for high-quality nutrition via environmentally sustainable methods of protein production.

Food systems in East Africa have a long way to go in terms of development, perhaps more so than any other region of the world.

To help ensure long-term food security and food safety, East African nations can embrace a tactic that has proven effective for the Global South, with regard to benefiting from technology ahead of the Global North. They can skip incremental stages in development and leapfrog their way to new, transformative methods of food production.

Avoiding the negative impacts of intensive agriculture

Africa as a whole is increasing its agricultural output, but, as economics columnist Peter Coy asserted in April, “it’s managing to do so only by massively increasing its inputs,” a course of action that inhibits long-term economic and nutritional success.

As intensive agriculture scales, it exacerbates serious negative impacts, including biodiversity loss, soil degradation, deforestation, the depletion of natural resources and emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases. What’s more, these impacts, in turn, worsen the strain on production itself.

In the face of these negative impacts, East African countries can invest in and preserve smallholder farming and simultaneously leapfrog by complementing these farms with new forms of local protein production, such as precision fermentation, cellular agriculture and algal production, which can increase output while avoiding most of intensive agriculture’s negative effects.

Just as how India and other countries largely bypassed copper phone landlines in favour of cellphones, how China and other countries largely skipped manual credit cards in favour of mobile payments and how much of Africa bypassed overreliance on central power grids in favour of solar energy, East African nations can use this complementary approach to leapfrog intermediate steps in protein production.

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A two-pronged strategy that pays dividends

In much of East Africa, smallholder farms carry unique social, economic and cultural importance. They often serve as the main financial assets capable of supporting families, cementing social bonds and playing key roles in core institutions like marriage.

Meanwhile, new forms of protein production can provide higher sheer quantity, which is not the core competency of smallholder farms. In contrast to intensive conventional farming, these innovative forms of protein production have positive environmental and public health effects. They can slash methane emissions, the fastest way to slow down and reverse global warming, and they can protect biodiversity by reducing the need for humanity to infringe on natural ecosystems for land, water and other resources. In addition, they can support job creation and local economies.

These forms of production take place in closed environments and without antibiotics, significantly reducing the risks of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases. They can operate independently of specific climate conditions, making them resilient to weather-related and climate change-induced shocks. And, because there’s no slaughter involved, there is a reduced risk of contamination and foodborne illnesses.

At scale, applications of new protein production (such as cultivated meat, an application of cellular agriculture) can reduce the pressure on conventional producers to meet increasing demand for animal proteins. Together, smallholder farming and new methods of production can optimize the overall protein ecosystem and meet this demand with fewer and better-managed animals than intensive agriculture can.

As technology scales, it’s time to build adequate foundations

New methods of protein production are not yet cost-efficient at scale, but in any case, there is work to be done on the ground before they are implemented. It will take time to build the foundational infrastructure, research and development necessary to fulfil their potential.

It’s important to develop and implement economic models that align with the complementary strategy described above. While integrating new production methods into local food systems can improve farmers’ livelihoods in certain places, doing so may not necessarily yield the same socioeconomic impact elsewhere. A one-size-fits-all approach could exacerbate existing inequalities and hinder equitable development. With this in mind, countries should create custom-made frameworks that consider distinct historical trajectories, economic structures and cultural contexts, addressing communities' specific circumstances.

It is vital to begin supporting smallholder farms now. Government incentives, in the forms of subsidies and tax breaks, take time to materialize in action and impact. It’s also crucial to nurture pools of talent to manage and implement these new production methods. Governments should invest in specific fields of higher education, including bioprocessing and public health, so that when new production methods are scalable, these nations will be ready in terms of manpower.

Even regulatory frameworks need time to solidify. They can also benefit from leapfrogging. Whereas the frameworks reviewing submissions for new proteins have had to learn on the go (since they are reviewing technological applications that were science fiction only a few years ago), frameworks in East Africa could pick up where the others have reached thus far.

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Looking ahead to meet tomorrow’s demand

The Global North is investing significant resources in advancing new methods of protein production towards cost-efficient scalability, in part because it needs to thwart further impact of intensive agriculture.

In the face of climate change, resource scarcity and rising populations, nations in East Africa and across the Global South have an opportunity to do what the Global North did not. By leapfrogging intensive agriculture, they can meet their populations’ demand for high-quality nutrition with sound and environmentally sustainable sources of protein. The time to lay the groundwork is now.

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