Faced with climatic hazards, the Maghreb mobilizes drones and high-tech

In a field of orange trees in Nabeul, the silence is broken by the whir of a drone

Faced with climatic hazards, the Maghreb mobilizes drones and high-tech

In a field of orange trees in Nabeul, the silence is broken by the whir of a drone. In Tunisia and elsewhere in the Maghreb, farmers are turning to high-tech to combat the effects of global warming. Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya are among the world's top 33 countries facing water stress which is worsening from year to year, according to the American World Resources Institute.

“Using modern technologies in agriculture has become inevitable” to reduce costs and crop losses, explains to AFP Imen Hbiri, 35, founder of RoboCare, which employs around ten people.

The black V-shaped machine zigzags above citrus plants – a specialty of the Nabeul region (east) – scanning the fifteen hectares with cameras and sensors. The data collected allows RoboCare to analyze the hydration level of a particular plot, the quality of the soil and even the condition of the crops to detect diseases. Then, the farmer can intervene with pesticide spraying or targeted watering on the suffering plantations.

Irrigation indicators

In a few clicks, Imen Hbiri accesses the irrigation and vegetation indicators of each zone and their state of health, according to a range of colors (red, green, blue) more or less pronounced. “The farmer can achieve water savings of up to 30%, increase yields by 30% and reduce expenses by 20% thanks to this technology,” emphasizes the CEO of RoboCare, herself the daughter of farmers.

Tunisia is going through its fourth consecutive year of drought, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. The dams, the main source of drinking and irrigation water, are filled to only 22% of their capacity and twenty reservoirs are out of use due to lack of rain.

Yassine Gargouri used the services of RoboCare in order to reduce his costs, as he devotes 80% of his expenses to the purchase of fertilizers. “We no longer have the seasons before where we knew exactly what to do,” explains Mr. Gargouri, noting that in May temperatures are now high and that in August it can rain, promoting diseases. when the weather used to be dry and hot. “We have to adapt to these upheavals, that’s really the challenge of tomorrow,” he adds.

Drones and high-tech are for him “an additional step”, after the arrival of drip irrigation around twenty years ago in the face of decreasing rainfall. And new technologies make it possible to “optimize what we put on the leaves as phytosanitary products and therefore their cost”.

Adapt the legal framework

In neighboring countries, the situation is similar. In Morocco, agriculture is a key sector, representing 13% of GDP, 14% of exports and 33% of employment. But only 3% of the two million farmers use technologies, according to Loubna El Mansouri, director of the digital center at the Ministry of Agriculture, in a country which in 2022 suffered its worst drought in forty years. “With an irrigation drone, we consume less than 20 liters of water to irrigate one hectare compared to nearly 300 liters” with conventional techniques, explains Ms. El Mansouri. “So there’s a big water saving,” she says.

Driven by similar objectives, the Ministry of Agriculture in Algeria intends to develop the use of drones and satellite images. The authorities are preparing, according to official statements, “a national map of production sites and capacities” in order to “optimize the use of agricultural land”.

The generalization of new technologies in agriculture in North Africa, however, requires adapting the legal framework of these countries and raising awareness among farmers and administrations. In Tunisia, Ms. Hbiri hopes that the authorities will facilitate their use while “only 10% of farmers currently use them.” According to her, “the administrative side should be more fluid”, in particular for the granting of authorizations for overflights by drones which often takes months.

In Tunisia, just as in Algeria and Morocco, the use of drones is closely monitored and prohibited in certain portions of the territory for security reasons. “We want to focus on technology rather than investing time and effort going back and forth to offices and banks, which hinders our development,” emphasizes Ms. Hbiri.