Making a digital farm a working reality
By Roger Hislop, board member at the IOT Industry Council (IOTIC) of South Africa
Agriculture is a high-pressure industry. It has faced drought and floods, late rain, and early rain. Climate change is an ongoing threat – along with enormous economic and social upheaval. Agri has had to focus on innovation to achieve sustainable growth and provide for returns on investment in an increasingly capital-intensive business.
The bucolic vision of farming of yesteryear masks a high-pressure environment that requires high technology. This is the right time for farmers to adopt new approaches and to examine how IoT and AgriTech can support their needs more effectively.
Several trends have a significant impact on the agricultural sector. Energy costs keep rising, self-generation of electricity is exploding, climate change is very real, and everyone wants to reap the benefits of automation and intelligence.
South Africa is already more expensive than every European country for electricity. 92% of self-generated electricity is produced from renewables globally, of which 61% is solar (says the Economist Intelligence Unit). And according to our Department of Energy, we will see installed PV solar grow from 1.48GW to 3.6GW by 2026. This could reach 11GW by 2030 – a third of Eskom’s current 35GW of coal-fired capacity.
Today, more farmers have tertiary agricultural qualifications than in the past, and more farms are being structured and resourced as businesses. Business structures must be institutional investor-friendly, with centralised ownership and management across multiple farms.
Hard numbers are not easy to come by, but examined as VAT-paying registered business, while micro-farms (<R1m turnover) are dwindling, small and medium farms (<R6m and <R10m) are holding steady, and large farms (>R10m) are growing in number, from 3 814 in 2009 to 5 135 by 2017. At the same time, the number of dairy farmers (for example) is falling, from 3500 in 2009 to just over a thousand today. Fewer farmers, more farming.
Bad news for farming communities, good news for the economy: large farms in 2017 accounted for 67% of all Agri revenues in South Africa, and 51% of all employment.
Agriculture as an industry is looking at inventive ways of building shareholder value while developing new markets, all to capture the attention of the right investors to fund all this modernisation. Most professsionalised farming concerns are realising the inherent value of technology to improve efficiencies and operational management – and increasingly records and data management and are looking for solutions that can help them achieve measurable results with intelligent tools.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is increasingly invaluable to this sector, largely because systems have come down so rapidly in cost and complexity. Today, IoT technology is easy to implement, flexible, and very affordable. Farmers can use the technology to monitor temperature, humidity, and soil moisture to vastly improve land and stock outputs and potential.
They can use granular measurement tools to dig down into the management of livestock and machinery, with security system overlays to ensure that valuables are effectively tracked over vast distances. And they can use operational instrumentation to monitor factors such as effective use (or even operator misuse) of farming systems as well as manage energy (both fuel and electricity) much better. IoT has proven value across the three key tiers in the farming of field and harvest management; packing and logistics; and farm operations.
There are some important, Agri-specific factors to consider, ensuring that any solution will deliver the benefits expected. There are inherent practical issues in agriculture that can impact solution design, such as farm connectivity: the last and middle mile distances to get from a telecom’s provider to the farm, and intra-site distances within a farm from field to factory. High tech in fields is valuable, but it requires careful planning and a focus on fitness for purpose.
The farmer needs reliable sensor data from field devices; it also needs for these devices to be cost-effective and easy to use, plus they need end-to-end monitoring of IoT systems to ensure their telemetry and control capability is reliable. As the tech costs continue to come down, and the capabilities of these systems continue to go up, it is becoming increasingly accessible for Agri to adopt the high tech. What is still lacking is tech solution providers designing products that talk directly to the needs of this sector.
Farms need local connectivity and compute onsite, the right infrastructure, and intelligent tools that can help them optimise everything from moving pallets to saving energy,” concludes Hislop. This is what makes IoT such a rising star in the sector today. It’s easy and quick to install, it leverages off multiple connectivity options that can be customised to meet very specific location requirements, and it's safe and cost-effective.
It’s a huge market for SA’s technology solution providers that is almost untapped. Remember those 8 to 10,000 medium and large farms?
They need local connectivity and computing, with Wi-Fi between buildings for computerisation. They need replicated server infrastructure with Cloud-synch capabilities suitable to high cost/low bandwidth connectivity options.
They need IOT connectivity for devices within the farm – LoRaWAN, 6LOWPAN, MIOTY, WiSUN, and other technologies, with Wi-Fi and Ethernet backhaul.
They need farming-centric business software. They need Cloud application integration expertise. Just taking a back-of-the-envelope calculation for basic systems, and we’re looking at an R2-billion Agri-focused tech services market. An opportunity just waiting to be seized.
The future of the agriculture industry rests in the hands of connected technology systems – IOT and distributed computerised systems. Not just because this tick so many productivity and automation boxes, but because it can fundamentally shift many legacy challenges around cost reduction, production improvement, and long-term sustainability without costing the farm that proverbial arm and a leg.