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“Food security is going to be a very big issue”

With a background in supporting agricultural sectors across Africa, David Burton aimed to explore how UK technology could help improve food yields and security on the island. During his visit, the Senior Director of Agriculture Africa at the UK Department for Business and Trade assessed Mauritius’ current food security landscape, understood the challenges faced by local farmers, and discussed potential technological solutions. This interview with BIZWEEK, held during his recent stay in Mauritius, delves into David Burton’s insights on food security, the impact of global and regional factors, and the role of new agricultural technologies in enhancing local food production and self-sufficiency.

David Burton, Senior Director Agriculture Africa, UK Department for Business and Trade
David Burton, Senior Director Agriculture Africa, UK Department for Business and Trade

To provide some context for your mission here in Mauritius, can you share the main objective of your visit?

I work for the UK Department of Business and Trade. I’m based in Johannesburg, and I cover all of Africa for agriculture, food and drink, and the blue economy. So my role is to work with countries to support them from a technical point of view. The mission here is at the request of the Ministry of Agriculture, and we’re primarily looking to see whether there’s any UK technology that might help improve yields and improve food security.


Is this mission aligned with the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed last year?

It is. We were very happy to sign an agreement between the UK and Mauritius for a strategic partnership. And it’s critical for giving tangible results. We’ve got six sectors, which are as follows: financial and professional services, education and training, pharmacy, biotech and healthcare, green economy and waste management, cyber and agri-tech, and food security. It’s a clear demonstration of our commitment to working with Mauritius. Agriculture and food security is one of the key sectors, so it aligns very closely with that agreement.



Mauritius is importing the majority of its food. I understand that the amount it’s actually importing has increased recently, and I also understand that during COVID, there were some issues of food availability. So, I think food security or food sovereignty is important.



How do you assess Mauritius from the perspective of food security?

I’ve only been here two days, so I’ve got to be very careful. Mauritius is importing the majority of its food. I understand that the amount it’s actually importing has increased recently, and I also understand that during COVID, there were some issues of food availability. So, I think food security or food sovereignty is important. The ministry is, in fact, concerned, and is interested in increasing the amount of food produced on the island, which I think is sensible.


To stay on the same topic, could you provide some context on the global and African food security situation?

Well, I don’t know about the world, but certainly in Africa, it’s going to be a big issue. The population of Africa is probably going to double by the year 2050. At the moment, only two countries are actually approaching food security, and the other 51 countries are already net importers. We’ve got the population doubling, and large parts of Africa are going to actually lose agricultural land due to climate change. 


It depends on which sort of study you read, but anything between 10 and 30 percent of current land will become unfarmable due to climate change. So, food security is going to be a very big issue. Most African countries are now putting in place quite serious policies to try to increase production. The good thing is that there are solutions. For most crops and most animal production in Africa, the yields are lower by national standards. It’s quite possible to increase the yield of milk, weeds, rice and the amount of beef you produce.


It’s very possible to increase these quite significantly using technology that already exists. The other thing is there’s quite a lot of land that’s not in agricultural production. It could be brought into agricultural production. I think that food security is going to be a big issue across the continent going forward.


Can we have a specific time frame for achieving the objectives of this mission?

It’s very difficult to put actual figures on it. We know the population of Africa is going to increase. A lot of studies say it’s going to double by 2050, and that’s already happening. Climate changes are quite difficult to predict. That does depend a little bit on what we do about emissions as the world is going forward. It’s pretty certain that quite a large amount of agricultural land is going to be lost, but it’s difficult to put a time frame on it. Some land has already been lost, and that’s going to get worse. 


Regarding self-sufficiency, how can we achieve it in these times of climate change and the war in Europe? Maybe we can discuss this from an African perspective.

In most African countries, the solution is technical. There are technical solutions that enable us to produce more wheat, more rice, more milk… These are technical solutions that are available already. Better seeds, better genetics, better fertilizers, better machinery, better technology… That needs to be coupled with a positive investment environment. There’s a lot of large-scale investment required, and countries that put positive investment and ecosystems in place are going to be the ones who get the results. 


Mauritius is a little bit different in that it is one of the most developed countries in Africa. It’s one of the richest countries in Africa per capita, and land is really quite a premium here. There’s not a lot of land compared to other countries. A lot of African countries just grow more crops, but here, I think you’ve got to be much more clever in how you look to increase production. There’s quite a lot of technology that could be brought in. 


Smart agriculture, for example? 

Smart agriculture is one. Vertical farming, crop protection, better genetics in the livestock sector… These sorts of things will make quite a difference. Mauritius imports staples like rice and wheat, and that’s probably going to be a situation that’s going to continue. I don’t think you’re getting to complete food security with the amount of land you’ve got, but you can certainly get to a point where you’ve got much less of a deficit. 


There’s a lot that Mauritius can do to improve, to increase the amount of food it’s producing. Crop protection, better genetics, and better seeds… these sorts of things. You can improve the amount of food that you’re growing quite considerably. Whether you’ll get to complete food security is a different issue, but the more you produce, the less vulnerable you are. 


Do you have examples of countries working effectively towards self-sufficiency?

Well, the only two countries in Africa that are food secure are South Africa and Uganda. They’re both interesting examples. South Africa has a lot of very large farmers who are quite efficient and quite innovative. It’s quite a big home market. Uganda is also interesting. It has a very positive government policy about producing more food. The President of Uganda is a farmer, and he’s very keen on producing, on agriculture. They also have a big market next door in Kenya, which helps them quite a lot, and stimulates them. The private sector has been very quick to take up new technology, and the government is taking the appropriate support measures to help them do that.


Can this model be replicated in other parts of Africa?

To a point, since every country is different. There’s not one blueprint that will work across every country. It has got to be private sector-driven, but with appropriate government support. A good amount of financing is available, investment is encouraged, and all the auxiliary things like processing and storage are also encouraged and planned for.


Could you elaborate on the contributions of the private sector?

There are different models across the world. I’m not going to comment on one or the other, but generally, the private sector responding in a free market is the best way to increase food production, because they will be agile and they respond to prices. We’re in an era, now, of high food prices, which I know is causing a lot of issues for consumers across the world, but it does make it more consistent for investors. There’s going to be consistent returns. It’s making agriculture, now, a more desirable destination for investment.


As an agritech expert, can you explain what agritech is?

That’s really about what I’ve talked about before. It’s just a fancy way of saying technology. We always come up with fashionable ways to say the same thing. So, agritech is just technology in the agricultural sector that will improve the situation. 


How can new technologies be beneficial to the local market, here, in Mauritius?

In Mauritius, where land availability is a real issue, there are some technologies that could be beneficial, one of which is vertical farming. It’s like you farm almost in a box, and it’s very high tech. You get very high yields. The water and the fertilizers are applied very precisely. The lighting is put in such a way that it increases yield, and the crop cycle is very short. Vertical farming is working very well in countries where they’re very short on land, like Singapore, and where labour is expensive. It may be applicable here. 


There are other things like protected crops. There are a lot of greenhouses. There are other versions like that that are a little bit more sophisticated, where they control the temperature and the water use. Again, you’re increasing the yields.

If you look in the livestock sector, you can improve the genetics, which will improve the yield by bringing in either cattle or, more likely, bringing in semen or embryos. You can then cross with local breeds. 

Those are agri-tech you can bring in. These are things that I’d recommend that the Ministry considers. I think there’s some work to do on whether they’re economic, and how they’re going to be produced. But based on what I’ve seen so far, in terms of what I was asked to do, there’s definitely technology that, I think, can help.


Are you also considering the climate perspective, including the impact of cyclones?

Well, cyclones are a new one for me, but obviously, we’ll have to make sure that if we build the vertical farming, it is cyclone proof. I believe that’s possible. It needs to be looked at in terms of how they’re built. It is the same with polytunnels and greenhouses. There are ways of building them to make them much less likely to blow away.


Have you noticed differences in the agricultural sector in Mauritius compared to other countries you have visited?

I’m very impressed by the government support structures. There are some very well-developed professional support structures in the sugar and the non-sugar sector. Things like plant breeding and advisory services. I’m very impressed by the people I’ve met. Not many countries have that level of support in place for their farmers, and that was quite impressive.


Do you think the economy of Mauritius will continue to rely on agriculture as one of its main sectors?

I would say yes, absolutely. There’s a lot that can be done to improve the production of food. 


What message would you like to convey to Mauritian farmers and stakeholders about the potential benefits of this partnership with the UK?

We have an offer of technical equipment, which farmers may or may not be interested in. It’s all voluntary. We’re hoping that we can organise a trade mission sometime in the next few months, where you can bring some of the UK companies here to Mauritius to showcase what they’re offering. Financing is available from the UK government for this initiative. I’d say to farmers; come along and see what we’ve got to offer, and ask lots of questions. 


Can you elaborate on the profile of UK companies that are likely to be interested in assisting Mauritius?

Sure. They are in vertical farming, animal genetics, seed production, fertiliser producers, post-harvest technology, crop storage, etc. It’s basically companies where the technology will be of interest.


What are your key takeaways from this mission?

Well, the food’s fantastic. The local beers are really lovely. The people are really friendly, so I’ll really enjoy coming here again. It’s really nice to feel that we can help. This does feel like a genuine partnership, and I’m privileged to be able to help in a small way.


You mentioned financing. Are there any specific schemes available?

We have a scheme called UK Export Finance. If you have a project you want to finance, in any sector actually, or in most sectors, it’s UK sovereign debt, so it’s a reasonable interest rate. As long as 20% of that is sourced from the UK, then you’re eligible to apply for UK Export Finance. There’s £5 billion of coverage available, and this hasn’t been used yet. So we’re hoping that, with the trade mission, if you are interested in buying UK equipment, UK Export Finance is potentially available. It’s not compulsory. You should look at it and compare it to other financing options, and see which is the best, but it’s usually quite a good deal.


I noticed that you also met with stakeholders and the High Commissioner. How was the interaction with the stakeholders and the private sector?

Very good. Very enlightening. Anybody who’s successful as a private farmer has my admiration, because it’s a difficult business. You’re running a business, but you’re also growing crops, you’re fighting with the weather and everything else. Anybody who’s successful as a farmer in the private sector, he’s already done very well, in my opinion. I was very interested in meeting these people. I was impressed. There’s some really good people. There’s a lot of successful businesses here. 


In the climate change debate, we’ve seen a growing community of vegans who say they avoid meat to save the planet. At the same time, farmers have the right to grow and breed livestock. How do you view this debate?

It’s an interesting one. This is a personal view. A lot of people are saying that red meat contributes a lot to greenhouse gases. I think the answer is it depends on the system. So, there are systems where you are chopping down tropical rainforests, and that is certainly contributing, but there are other systems where you’re using land that can only ever be grassland. If it can’t be grassland, there will be nothing. Another thing, of course, is that there is a UK technology now based on seaweed production that will reduce the amount of methane that dairy cows produce by up to 80%, and methane is the biggest greenhouse gas. So, there’s a technological solution to some of this. I’ve seen studies about the amount of greenhouse gases emitted when producing soya milk compared to dairy milk. Often, it doesn’t take into account the cost of transporting the soya milk from the country where they grow the soya, or almond milk, or something. I think that some of these things are not complete. They’re just production, and don’t take account of the transport side of it. Agriculture also has a big role in mitigating climate change. There’s a lot of positive things there.

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