Technology continues to play an integral role in the development of agriculture globally whilst doubling up to help the industry break into new borders.
Dawie Maree is the Head of Information and Marketing for FNB Agriculture. He is of the opinion that agricultural technology innovation is evolving at an unparalleled pace, leaving farmers with no other choice but to adjust and reinvent themselves in order to compete, grow and sustain their businesses.
“The agricultural industry globally is successfully overcoming some of its prominent environmental and food production challenges through the use of new and advanced technologies, and South Africa is no exception,” says Maree.
He sheds some light on key tech trends to shape agriculture in 2019:
- Vertical farming – this modern form of farming used to produce food in a smaller controlled environment through vertically stacked layers to save on water and fertilizer – is no longer just a ‘buzz word’, but reality. A number of farmers in South Africa are already successfully using this technology as part of their farming practices.
- Mobile apps – smartphones are no longer just used for multimedia purposes and accessing information through the internet. Farmers are now actively using apps to monitor their crops via GPS, calculate feed, save water, get access to networks and markets, etc. Maree says mobile apps have become a key disruptor in the agricultural industry. Developers globally work round the clock to introduce app innovations that were once thought unimaginable but there are now apps that are able to spot over 430 weed species and identify their characteristics, at a punch of a button.
- Big Data – the industry is increasingly using data analytics to improve operational efficiency and yield prediction. Farmers are now able to implement complex systems that assist them with equipment management. This initiative is also combined with data on weather patterns, soil conditions as well as crops to be planted, to develop a formula to determine the best time and place to plant and harvest. Big data is also useful for forecasting demand for crops, yield on crops, as well as potential land size and usage of land.
- Drip Irrigation – Factoring in the recent drought conditions which have had huge cost implications on South African farmers in the region of billions of Rands, there’s a lot of investment in the development of advanced drip irrigation technology, which allows farmers to limit wastage by efficiently delivering the exact amount of water to the soil, needed by their crops to grow.
“Farmers are urged to regularly research and educate themselves on new technological developments in the industry to avoid being left behind. Those who are still pessimistic, do so at their peril,” concludes Maree.
Facebook to curb fake news using Yoruba and Igbo languages
The social media platform is collaborating with Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organisation
Facebook says it will fight fake news on its platform, using Nigeria’s Yoruba and Igbo languages.
According to Facebook’s Head of Public policy, Africa, Kojo Boakye, the two languages are in addition to the Hausa language, already supported by the platform.
The social media platform is collaborating with Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organisation to add new local language support for several African languages as part of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme.
The programme intends to assess the accuracy of news on Facebook and reduce the spread of misinformation.
Launched in 2018, the programme has also expanded its local language coverage across Kenya in (Swahili), Senegal in (Wolof), and South Africa in (Afrikaans, Zulu, Setswana, Sotho, Northern Sotho and Southern Ndebele). Senegal and Cameroon are also included in the coverage.
Poo Power: How dung biodigester is supercharging farming in Kenya
There, in a brick tank, dung from Josphat’s 10 dairy cows is quietly transformed into a rich, organic fertiliser that supercharges his soil
In 35 years working the land, Kenyan farmer Josphat Muchiri Njonge has never seen his coffee shrubs burst with so much fruit on his verdant hillside plot outside bustling Nairobi.
Same too goes for the banana and avocado trees swaying on his two-acre (0.8 hectares) family farm in Kiambu. The plot is also lush with kale, spinach, maize and the cereal amaranth.
His secret weapon lies underground.
There, in a brick tank, dung from his 10 dairy cows is quietly transformed into a rich, organic fertiliser that he says has supercharged the soil and harvests.
It isn’t the only benefit Njonge, and tens of thousands of other smallholder farmers across Africa derive from “biodigesters.”
These tanks, either made of masonry or modern plastics, act like a magical mechanical stomach.
In the darkness, natural micro-organisms break down manure in the absence of oxygen to create compost and biogas, a clean, renewable energy source.
Kenya boasts more biodigesters than anywhere else in Africa — a “poo power” that is being used to run everything from cooking stoves to farm equipment, phone chargers and shower heaters.
It is a smart use of land, something that the UN’s top scientific panel for climate change says will be crucial for keeping global temperatures at safer levels while feeding a growing population.
In a special report this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailed how intensive farming has degraded the environment — a crisis that requires a major rethink about how food is produced and land used wisely.
Agriculture and deforestation produces almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, with methane from livestock a major contributor to a warming planet.
Biogas is essentially carbon neutral, and helps reduce fossil fuel emissions by replacing the firewood and charcoal traditionally burned in kitchens in Africa.
Enormous demand for these cheap sources of wood has ravaged Kenya’s forests and degraded its soils.
Their fumes also kill, with 15,000 deaths a year from indoor air pollution, according to government figures.
“It’s very convenient for me. I’ve been using firewood, charcoal, but I don’t anymore,” said Anne Mburu, a farmer in Kiambu, who used to spend Ksh2,000 a month on firewood before installing a modern, prefabricated digester alongside her cowshed.
Future energy –
Biogas is filling a gap in East Africa, where developing economies are fast-growing but power is costly, unreliable or non-existent.
The technology has been around in Kenya since the 1950s but was neglected until the Kenya Biogas Program (KBP) began promoting efforts to scale-up and commercialise the sector around 2009.
Since then, more than 100,000 people have gained access to biogas in their homes, more than anywhere else on the continent, says KBP.
Ethiopia rivals Kenya in biogas production while initiatives in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda are also gaining pace.
Tim Mungai, a business development manager at KBP, said there were “huge opportunities” for growth in the Kenyan market alone, where two million farmers keep cattle at home.
“Biogas will be part of the energy mix for the future to come,” he told reporters.
Local and foreign companies — including Dutch outfit SimGas, Mexican firm Sistema, and HomeBiogas, an Israeli manufacturer — are rolling out new technologies in East Africa.
Simpler “plug and play” models, often made from recycled plastic instead of traditional brick and mortar, can be installed in hours and generating gas within a day.
Manufacturers are testing new types of feedstock, diversifying from ordinary cow manure, which is mixed with a little water to prevent the system from becoming clogged.
Some educational facilities in Kenya are firing their kitchens on human excrement, and waste from slum latrines in Nairobi is also being transformed into green energy.
Others mulch food scraps and slaughterhouse waste while some greenhouses along Lake Naivasha, where Kenya’s world-famous roses blossom, have also been producing energy from flower offcuts.
Need to adapt –
Farmers across Africa are learning to make do with less as arable land is swallowed by the continent’s fast-growing cities. Desertification, deforestation and degraded soils are also heaping further strain on land and farmer.
In the hilly breadbasket of Kiambu, coffee and concrete vie for space.
Agricultural land has rapidly dwindled as Nairobi has pushed ever outwards, housing projects abutting plantations where harvesters hand-pick crops to feed Kenya’s mushrooming population.
“Farmers need to adapt on the issue of climate-smart agriculture,” said Mungai.
The compost left behind in the biogas production process is an added bonus, but important for land regeneration.
The “bioslurry” can be used in animal feed, to rear earthworms, replace chemical pesticides and restore humus to over-farmed soils.
Njonge, a 67-year-old veteran coffee farmer, swears by it.
The nutrient-dense plant food has doubled his coffee production in under three years, and improved the quality of his beans.
Apart from higher returns, and saving cash on fertilisers and firewood, he also gives some of the bounty to one of his sons living on an adjacent plot — he pipes the biogas to his home nearby.
And all of it, thanks to his cows.
“It’s just like a miracle. Something which we never thought we would make use of, in that way, becomes something very amazing,” he chuckled.
How technology is helping Kenya win the war against poaching
Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary
Every morning, at the far perimeter of the wildlife reserve capped by Mount Kenya, a khaki-clad ranger meticulously sweeps the earth of animal footprints, covering their tracks from any poachers. It’s an antiquated approach to outsmarting would-be hunters, but this ranger is not alone. High on a mast nearby, a new camera scans around the clock for intrusions, relaying real-time images to armed guards at park headquarters.
It is among the latest technology deployed to combat poaching at Ol Pejeta, a private conservancy on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau that shelters the only two northern white rhinos left on earth, among other endangered giants.
A handful of surveillance cameras may not seem very sophisticated for a sanctuary which is also home to the largest population of critically endangered black rhinos anywhere in East Africa.
But it’s just the tip of the spear. Last month, Ol Pejeta launched what it calls the world’s first wildlife tech lab – a research hub at the heart of the sanctuary dedicated to bringing conservation management into the information age.
Inside a retrofitted shipping container, computer engineers are testing the next generation of animal tracking chips and developing remote sensors that could one day monitor everything from ranger health to river levels. “We are very much in our infancy when it comes to this kind of stuff. It is pretty cutting-edge from a conservation perspective,” Richard Vigne, the chief executive of Ol Pejeta, said.
Among other projects, researchers are working towards a chip small enough to fit in a rhino horn, but capable of the live transmission of the animals’ exact location and core vitals. “No one else in the conservation space in Kenya is testing this… For me, that was very exciting,” said Damian Otieno, a Kenyan IT engineer who left an office job for a career in conservation tech, and now leads the Ol Pejeta initiative.
Tech advocates say advances in data collection and smart applications on game reserves could prove revolutionary and upend decades-old approaches to conservation across the world.
‘Bank without doors’
Until this year at Ol Pejeta, the only way to know if a poacher was lurking near a wildlife corridor was to spot him yourself or trawl through pictures captured by a motion-triggered camera trap. “If I had a bugbear about the world of conservation, it’s that it tends to be fairly slow on the uptake when it comes to new technologies… that has to change,” said Vigne.
Now, three cameras with artificial intelligence capable of telling man from beast send alerts in real time if disturbances are detected. This is critical for the 250 elite rangers tasked with safeguarding 360 square kilometres (90,000 acres) of bushland grazed by more than 150 rhinos.
The last successful poaching at Ol Pejeta was in October 2017, when a northern black rhino was slaughtered. But the threat remains. Last year, three rhinos were found dead with their horns missing in Meru National Park, on the other side of Mount Kenya.
Rhino horn is highly valued in parts of Asia for its believed medicinal qualities and still fetches higher prices than gold, said Samuel Mutisya, head of conservation at Ol Pejeta. “In principle, we are a bank without doors,” he said.
Most intel on game reserves is gathered on foot by rangers in difficult and dangerous terrain, and the walkie-talkie reigns supreme. Poor network coverage and the huge cost of infrastructure has hamstrung the rollout of even basic telecommunication services in some remote habitats.
‘Ten steps ahead’
Ol Pejeta, however, is connected to a stable network that requires little power to cover the entire park. Data on everything from security breaches to fence damage, lion sightings and ranger locations are fed into a digital dashboard, accessible at a finger’s touch.
A pair of flashing handcuffs on the screen indicates an arrest. A “poacher contact” alert would trigger the immediate deployment of armed rangers. Other innovations have been tested elsewhere in Africa to combat wildlife crime, but cost remains a major hurdle to widespread uptake.
Drones, thermal-imaging cameras and virtual-radar fences were among technologies trialled to mixed success in several African nations by WWF through a Google-backed programme that ended in 2017.
FLIR Systems, which manufactures night-vision cameras, said in January its technology, already deployed in the Masai Mara, would be expanded to 10 Kenyan parks and game reserves.
Vigne said the challenge for Ol Pejeta’s researchers would be developing solutions that can be replicated cost-effectively, at scale. “It’s all very well having one or two parks in Africa with lots of techs, but if that is really costly to the point that nobody else can do it, then it’s a waste of time,” he said.
Prototypes of small, inexpensive chips with years-long battery life are already being tested to track the conservancy’s 6000-strong herd of Boran cattle. Soon, Ol Pejeta hopes to adapt this to rhino tracking, providing intelligence about where and when to deploy rangers and trimming their security bill. “We want to stay one step ahead of the poachers. Ten steps ahead, even better,” said Otieno.
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