By Olivia Main
The South African agriculture industry is in the midst of one of its most productive year-on-year growth periods to date. The country’s 2020/21 total grain and oil seed output measured 17.85 million tonnes, making it one of the largest on record exceeding 2019’s number by 34%. Maize, wheat, barley, canola and citrus harvests have been similarly big which means that, in a time of shortages and uncertainty, the agriculture sector is spearheading South Africa’s economic recovery and growth journey post the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the gains are largely due to exceptional growing conditions, which included favourable rains in the Western Cape and good soil moisture in other provinces. A contributing factor, however, is strong collaboration between government and industries in formulating and implementing enabling policy frameworks. To ensure the sector continues on its upward trajectory, this collaboration, together with a good look at implementing emerging technologies, should be high on the agenda.
Earth Observation (EO)
Earth Observation (EO) is at the forefront of digital technologies driving agricultural growth across the world facilitating continent-wide increases in crop yields and savings on waste. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Unlocking the Potential of Earth Observation (EO) to Address Africa’s Critical Challenges, the technology is one of the most valuable assets of the African continent as it fights food shortages.
“The insights it offers can be used to tackle a wide range of issues including water scarcity, land use and food security,’ said Adam Lewis, the Managing Director of Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa), a platform designed to catalogue EO data in order for it to be used by policy makers, scientists and the private sector to address social, environmental and economic changes on the African continent.
Reduced insurance and pesticide costs are two benefits which the agricultural sector stands to gain from keeping a digital eye on crops. Despite several benefits in agricultural practices, such as productivity improvements and protection of crop yields, pesticides can often have severe consequences for both public health and the environment. Through the implementation of best practices and the prevention of the spread of natural diseases, the use of pesticides could be reduced. EO data can play a focal role in setting up development models aimed at monitoring the evolution of diseases and the massive movements of insects. Such models would be crucial in forecasting how much and where these phenomena spread, to focus and limit pesticide intervention instead of resorting to broad, spray-all campaigns.
With regards to insurance, the little information insurers currently have on the activities of African farmers, is leading to exorbitant premiums. Satellite data can improve transparency on agricultural activity and output as it helps assess crop conditions and environmental risks. This enables insurance companies to develop index-based insurance products to compensate farmers for their loss and keep premiums down.
However, addressing water scarcity remains the biggest benefit to agriculture. Hydrological modelling improves water procurement and water allocation before and during irrigation thereby reducing water shortages. EO also improves crop monitoring at field and farm level to identify and remove factors causing lower yields, for example sowing too late or irrigating at the wrong times of the year. It is projected that EO will drastically reduce water shortages. In fact, it is estimated that if every African farmer could rely on geospatial services, the continent would save over 175 trillion litres of water every year, a quantity which is roughly equal to the dimension of the Turkana Lake in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Fortunately, for farmers in South Africa, the infrastructure needed for EO is already in place in the form of locally accessible satellites orbiting the earth. The South African Space Agency captures a substantial amount of earth observation data from these low-flying satellites. The organisation has a legislative mandate for acquisition, archiving, storing and disseminating of satellite imagery to enable the development of public and commercial EO derived products and services. With all that data ready and at hand, there is no reason for the South African agriculture sector not to join the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to accurately predict outcomes, has been put to use by an Israeli-based company dedicated to addressing the world’s food waste crisis. In 2017, the company Trellis began working closely with international food and beverage producers, to help predict their sourcing requirements from growers and accurately manage their supply chain operation.
According to Ilay Englard, Co-Founder and CEO of Trellis, the company “has developed a data/artificial intelligence (AI) platform that can measure procurement and logistic inefficiencies, such as timing of harvest, field-level yield and quality insights, all the way to the optimal freight and production plan.”
The Trellis system is accessible on any smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer, providing improvements in efficiency at key stages across the food supply chain.
Another piece of AI technology assisting fresh produce farmers, in particular, is Clarifruit: an on-the-go automatic quality control and data analytics platform. When selling fresh produce, the prices producers get are often dependent on the subjective opinion of the buyer on the quality of the produce. The software enables a producer to photograph a sample fruit or vegetable and have its external characteristics analysed automatically for size, colour, stem colour, and defects. With improved collaboration along the supply chain, a grower is better able to match product quality to customer specifications.
“Our Clarifruit platform can significantly improve a fresh produce business’ profitability, as it allows growers and pack houses to quickly sort sub-quality produce from marketable produce, resulting in fewer rejections by buyers on the market floor,” said Elad Mardix, president of Clarifruit.
Each year, 1.3 billion tons of food is discarded due to faults in cold chains. Once again AI developers have come to the rescue with an app called FreshCode: barcoded tags that monitor and record temperatures throughout a perishable product’s journey along the cold chain. The tags and the related track-and-trace software can also generate real-time records of who scanned a tag, what perishable product was tagged, when and where it was scanned, and whether or not the tagged product was exposed to temperatures outside of set parameters. The software issues a warning for any such out-of-parameter incidents, enabling users to identify the reasons for the lapse and handle the affected products appropriately. According to Yaron Nemet, Co-Founder and CEO of Varcode who created the app, in addition to the enhanced food safety provided by FreshCode tags, the costs of purchasing and using these tags and their associated software and hardware are lower “by a huge margin” than any other perishable foods cold chain monitoring technology available today.
Training, Technology and Teamwork
At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, the stakeholders in the agricultural sector, including the South African government, came together to find ways to cushion the industry from the developing crisis. Working hand-in-hand, farmers, business and government developed agricultural-related COVID-19 regulations and solutions. A prime example of this fruitful collaboration is an end-to-end agro-food chain tracker system that helped the industry identify blockages and provide instant support to farmers and agribusinesses during lockdown.
An additional and timely boost from the government, with an eye on the latest developments, is a planned training programme on innovation and management in the digital and data era for all public servants. According to the national school of government, the digital transformation course is aimed at reducing the gap between public administration, and the world of innovation and new technologies.
“The National School of Government, in partnership with the E’Cole Nationale D’administration (ENA) of France, will offer courses in Public Affairs Management in the Digital Era and Leadership in Times of Crisis and Complexity in February 2021,” they said, adding that “digital technology is expected to boost the ability of public servants to innovate in order to meet new expectations of citizens”.
Maintaining close public-private collaboration in instituting reforms and support measures, sufficient digital training, and the successful harnessing of emerging technologies are critical for the continued prosperity of farmers and agribusiness, in the midst of COVID-19 interruptions and subdued global markets.