Huge potential for technology to enhance agriculture in SA, experts say

South Africa's farmers compete in a global village and have to use the latest technology to ensure that decision-making is as effective as possible.

These were the views of Nation in Conversation panel discussion at the Nampo Harvest Day in Bothavillle, who also agreed that there was endless potential for technology to increase profits for farmers in South Africa.

"We're in a global village, so our produce competes with the US, Brazil, Australia, etc. We need to be better and more effective, and we need the newest technology to be more effective in our decision-making," said Grain SA chairperson Jaco Minnaar.

"If that leads to even a 2% increase in yield or profitability, it makes us compete better with the rest of the world."

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According to Minnaar, access to timely information about things such as drought, fertilisation and irrigation was currently the biggest priority. When it comes to livestock, farmers will use nanotechnology in the future, that will measure their animals' health.

"What we see is we're going to use less labour, but much more skilled labour. At the moment, farms are using unskilled labour but that's certainly going to change and is already evolving."

Sensitivities around genetically-modified products are also disappearing, with consumer trust in companies producing GMO foods increasing. In the context of Africa, this debate is also secondary.

"Technology makes production either cheaper or more effective so, if you sit in Europe, you can decide if you want GMO or non-GMO or organic food. But, if you have to feed Africa, you need cheap food. So, how can you get cheaper food on the market? If it's safe and proven safe, and you can get it cheaper. That must be the priority," Minnaar said.

Empowering small-scale farmers

Technology also has an important role to play in empowering small-scale farmers to make their businesses more viable.

"Technology here, is that much more crucial in terms of what it takes for South African commercial farmers to be successful today," Tavonga Alex Siyavora, John Deere's representative in sub-Saharan Africa, said. "It's so much more important to make sure you are getting higher yields with less inputs."

Wynand Malan from Connected Farmer at Mezzanine agreed that the advantages of technology for small farmers were immense.

"Sixty percent of the world's unused land is in Africa. And one must acknowledge the difference between South Africa and north of the Limpopo, where predominantly smallholder farmers are responsible for 90% of the production in Africa," he said.

"In South Africa, it's the exact opposite. 90% of production comes from commercial farms. So, there's opportunity here. There's unused land, there's small farmers, and technology being introduced. It's possible, through education and training, by introducing new seed and fertiliser and providing subsidies, to increase production of small farmers."

Siyavora said that more radical thinking around shared equipment and contracting models, such as what has been successful in Nigeria, is the way forward locally as well.

"There's a lot of untapped potential in even software development, where a lot of people in rural areas have come up with innovative solutions to help access mechanisation," he said.

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