The Future of Data in Farming in South Africa

As South Africa establishes itself ever more securely in the modern world, so South African farmers must adapt to a set of new challenges. 

Increasing urbanisation means food security must be guaranteed for an expanding population.

Climate change means increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and a growing susceptibility to drought conditions; while technological innovations revise older farming practices whilst also expanding the definition of what agriculture is and can accomplish.

It would be difficult to imagine a more exciting time to be involved in South African farming: traditions must be respected and built upon, but there’s no denying the focus has shifted towards innovative approaches seeking to exploit South Africa’s diverse resources to the full.

South Africa is well positioned to become a major food exporter, and that the agricultural sector could become a significant contributor to the local economy in the next ten years.

A vision for agriculture and food security across the region and continent should feature a 50-year food security plan for SADC, and include plans for processing of locally produced products. He called for a formalised approach to export production, and “thoughtful agricultural policy” which takes into account the funding and support needs of small scale farmers. If we ultimately want to create one million jobs in agriculture, these can only come off the back of production and processing.  While agriculture is often considered old fashioned, technology has had a dramatic impact on farming in South Africa. 

So-called precision farming uses technology to constantly monitor and adapt the relationship between farming inputs and outputs in order to combat climate change, reduce the use of harmful pesticides and make optimum use of scarce resources whilst at least maintaining, and often increasing, expected yields.

Urban farming, on the other hand, takes an extremely pragmatic approach by looking to address the problem of distribution and supply by growing food in urban environments. This is where food is needed most and urban farming reduces the costs, whilst making urban farming a profitable venture for those who are attracted to solution-oriented food production.

Hydroponics in farming using mineral nutrient solutions to replace soil is another farming method which aims to minimise inputs whilst maximising yields. This method saves on land use which again favours suburban environments, eliminates the restrictions of seasonality, and is estimated to use only 10% of the water required for traditional farming.

Farmers want more control over what they put into the soil- more control means less spending as margins on farms become more pressurised. Advances in technology will however mean large scale commercial farms will become less labour intensive, resulting in jobless growth in certain areas of agriculture.  Small scale urban farming would drive productivity and jobs growth.

While electricity itself is not a cutting-edge technology, improved access to cheap, reliable and sustainable electric power via wind and solar farms has the potential to boost agricultural efficiency and cut food losses.

Wind and solar energy are local and easier for rural farmers to access, but above all, electricity provides the means to take advantage of new ways to grow, process and store crops.

Internet connectivity allows farmers to access the information they need to increase productivity. This means real-time information about the market demand, plus precision weather and rainfall forecasts to maximise crop growth and yields. Farmers can now use phones and other hand-held devices to access markets. One example of how this transforms agriculture is the development of ‘virtual’ cooperatives to aggregate crop yields and broker better prices with suppliers.

The same infrastructure can also be used to secure agricultural finance at better terms. 

Data analysis, including soil data and weather station analysis, are becoming increasingly important to agriculture. AI-enabled machinery, such as crop sprayers that are able to distinguish between plants and weeds, are able to reduce the application of fertiliser and pesticides by as much as 90%. The challenge is having enough land with enough water available - water shortages will be critical in the future and our current water policy framework is not catering sufficiently for water storage and distribution.

Growth is expected in most subsectors of South African agriculture, with poultry, yellow maize, wheat and soybeans likely to experience the most growth due to changes in consumer preferences. Climate change however remains a concern and crop diversification is key. Venter said white maize would decrease in utilisation and production as consumers become more affluent and replace this staple with other forms of starch in their diets. While seed technology has enabled farmers to plant for higher yields in dryer environments, some areas of the country are becoming unsustainable for grain farming due to climate change.

Mega farms or large scale commercial farming is not the only productive way to farm, but small scale emerging farmers require funding and support to become commercially viable. Mechanisms to support emerging farmers should include a proper funding structure and access to infrastructure, “Farming is very complex. We must look at what we really mean when we say we need to get the land productive.

Commercial and small scale farming are not in direct opposition to each other, as large famers push commodities and drive exports, but there was a need to “consider new urban and small scale models to enable an economic environment to grow jobs and transfer skills.

Historically, South Africa has proven it can adapt to social and political change but with that we also fist when it comes to new techonolgy.

The challenge and opportunity for present-day South African farmers is to work alongside government, industry and the technology and conservation communities to guarantee the sustainable health of the agricultural sector, in order to secure the nation’s food supplies for the future.

We need to protect our agriculture and famers in South Africa and Africa-  It not easy to be a farmer- you need to have "guts" to survive, to make plans and to go till the end.  ANN- News office Johanel.