South African farming has entered the technological age- an age where data, measurements, alternative power sources, sensors and even the cell phone are working together to meet the challenges of increasing yields and productivity. The danger of technology, however, is that it can become overwhelming if not correctly assessed, says Standard Bank.
Speaking on the side-lines of the NAMPO agricultural trade fair in Bothaville, Nico Groenewald, Head of Agribusiness at Standard Bank said that it was appropriate that the focus for this year’s event was technology and agriculture. Ultimately, he said, it was the continuing adoption of technology that would ensure that South African farmers can meet their most crucial responsibility-that of being custodians of the environment and the soil.
“The choice of available technologies ranging from sensors to drones to GPS positioning systems is growing incrementally. It is important that farmers should take a critical look at offerings and adopt those most appropriate to their needs. The danger of technology lies in becoming overwhelmed by the vast quantity of information available and not using the data to its best advantage. Care must be taken to integrate technologies on a farm, so they are value-adding tools that work towards common objective-improving farming methods and outputs.”
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Illustrating his view, Groenewald says, that using technology like moisture sensors in strategic areas may help keep track of what is happening in the soil. The benefit of this technology is that it can be linked to a farms irrigation system so that calibrated quantities of water can be automatically drip-fed or sprayed onto crops. Water savings can be significant. The value of these devices becomes doubtful if the data is not sent to a central, accessible point where the information can be analysed, compared to other complementary inputs and then utilised.
Enabling sophisticated data products to interface with the cell phone-the most available of all technologies- has already become a ‘game-changer ‘for African agriculture, Groenewald points out, adding that it is not necessarily just new, sophisticated technologies that can bring change. The technologies can benefit not only large-scale commercial farmers but smallholder farmers who can become more competitive.
“The onus is on farmers to identify what data they need and to locate the correct people to assist them with the implementation of technology that is twinned with these requirements. The good news is that the cost of agricultural technology is dropping as it becomes more widely used. Of course, one of the most exciting developmental areas for farmers is the Biotech sector where rapid advances in crop technology have the potential to change the face of agriculture.”
Older, accepted technologies have not been left behind in the agricultural race. An example is a solar power that is still a ‘staple’ on farms located far from formal electricity supplies, or farms where a constant amount of electricity is crucial to maintaining operations. Installations have become simpler, panels more robust and lighter and batteries more useful and reliable.
Technology had also impacted on the provision of finance to farmers. The traditional bases for loans have increased to cover new technologies, while new processes ensure that applications for assistance can be processed from remote sites at a faster pace.
“There is no doubt that the use of technology will allow farmers to broaden their activities across the agricultural value chain. Technological changes in hardware, software and upskilling of human capital will help farmers to reach out from their traditional activities and expand their operations and profitability.”
“In the short term, adopting selected technological improvements will increase profits, cut down on costs and increase yields and improve food security. To the consumer this means reasonable food prices and better-quality products,” said Groenewald.