An approach that emphasises partnership and collaboration will see technology-driven farming reap financial and sustainability benefits
Robotics, AI, blockchain, machine learning and data – all the technology buzzwords you’d hear at any industry conference were flying around the first day of the inaugural Africa Agri Tech conference.
As is to be expected, the types of technologies transforming many industries across the globe are also having a major impact on agriculture. However the speakers today highlighted just how crucial these innovations are to an industry that is under incredible pressure to feed the globe whilst running as healthy, sustainable businesses at the same time.
The demands that are being placed on farmers – and governments for that matter – to provide food to an exponentially growing population at a time when farmable land is decreasing, in the face of changing climate patterns, cannot be understated.
Two clear themes emerged from today: Firstly, that the meaningful use of technology in farming is critical to its sustainability as an industry. Secondly, that collaboration between farmers, government, the private sector and scientists is the only way we will develop the knowledge that is so significant to farming in a way that reaches the dual goal of food security and sustainability – whilst allowing farmers to flourish financially.
The Director of International Strategy of Topsector Agri & Food in the Netherlands, Willemien van Asselt, emphasised the point of partnerships by outlining how close collaboration between government, private industry and science has led to a tremendous increase in productivity levels in agriculture in the Netherlands. At the same time, the Netherlands has been facing unprecedented droughts, and have had to learn to farm under these conditions, something, she says, the Dutch can learn much about from South African farmers. To this point, she highlights that international knowledge-sharing around farming practices holds benefits for everyone.
The idea around implementing technology meaningfully was an interesting ongoing theme during the day – the point being made that with farms generating so much data (Erik de Vries from Agri Technovation noted that an average farm generates around 4 million data points per day) – what are farmers to do with all that data? Numbers on their own mean very little.
Globally the agtech industry is booming, but farmers are being overwhelmed by all the technology available to them. How do they integrate all their IoT-connected equipment? How do they know what data matters? To De Vries’s point – IoT and data without interpretation is meaningless and just adds to the ambiguity that farmers are dealing with on a daily basis already. The journey from data to intelligence is critical.
What is astounding though is what can be achieved by embracing technology and integrating it into as many aspects of your farm as possible. The benefits are both financial and environmental. For example, farmer Cobus van Coller demonstrated a 525% ROI in the yields of just a single soybean harvest after buying a precision spraying implement. On the environmental side, Francois van der Merwe from CAN-Agri indicated that traditional lettuce farming uses 250l of water per kg of lettuce whilst vertical farming technology uses only 10l of water per kg of the same crop.
One thing today did make clear though is how important access to finance is for farmers. Technology does not come cheap, and the people who can most benefit from the efficiencies that these tools can bring often are the ones who can afford it least.
As Tavonga Siyavora from John Deere noted, there is no safety net for farmers in Africa to fall back on. Technology empowers farmers to control what they can. By unlocking data on their farms, they can better predict outcomes and reduce complexity to make more impactful decisions.
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