There was no shortage of inspiration and innovation at the 2023 Africa Agri Tech Conference. As experts broadly agreed, commendable strides have been made in agricultural technology adaptation but South Africa and the rest of Africa still have a long way to go.
On the final day of Africa’s biggest agritech gathering, agribusiness leaders from across the agricultural landscape shared some hard truths on missed opportunities in South African agriculture.
Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), was the first to table his concerns. According to Sihlobo, incomplete statistics on South African agriculture must be looked at and addressed.
Smallholder farmers ‘under the radar’
“We know a lot about commercial farming in South Africa but not very much about smallholder farmers,” he told a room full of conference attendees.
However, new data technology can fix this, Sihlobo said. In order to improve the accuracy of collected data, he urged stakeholders to fund data collectors like Stats SA, so as to see the improvement of the data collection methods.
“Accuracy of statistics will help improve policy making and investments. With the new technology, the future is bright [and] we will remain a net exporter. I think we have a good future in agriculture,” he said.
Sihlobo urged the national department of agriculture to keep on updating its farmer register and provide a register that accurately represents small-scale farmers in the country.
Why agritech matters
Sihlobo encouraged the development of software technologies to improve data collection methods and enhance farming processes.
“Software technology is not about the tractors and medicines that are there, but it is also about the technology like the geographic information system.”
Because of software technology, data collectors have been able to collect and store statistical data about the effects of load-shedding on the farming industry. Through this technology, it was discovered that irrigation-dependent farms have been negatively impacted by the continuous rolling blackouts, Sihlobo said.
“Not only them but also poultry and dairy farmers, and because of technology we were able to map them out and calculate the extent of the damage caused. That is why having technology is important because it helps us understand what’s happening on our farms,” he added.
Don’t slip on quality
Director for the Bureau for Economic Research at Stellenbosch University, Professor Johann Kirsten, tackled how regulations and administrative processes hamper the adoption of new technology in South African Agriculture.
Kirsten believes that data science is going to be the key to South Africa’s agricultural environment. However, there is the issue of quality.
“Quality is an important direction we need to take and this will need technical development,” he said.
Kirsten said improvements in South Africa’s regulation of technical advancements in agriculture are needed. Additionally, there is a continuous threat of overpowering the European Union’s Green Deal.
Although the urgency to reach technical developments remains high, funding remains a hindrance, Kirsten said.
“Developing new production technology is quite expensive and costly, but while we are developing technology for farming practices, it means that regulation is important as well.”
Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan
The programme also featured a robust panel discussion on South Africa’s Agriculture and Agro-processing Master Plan (AAMP). Agbiz CEO Theo Boshoff said he saw the AAMP as a road map.
“A challenge we have, though, is that everyone thinks that after the AAMP was signed, implementation is immediate, but it’s not. I don’t see it as a plan but as a roadmap, and we have a single roadmap that can give us a way forward in farming.”
The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy’s (BFAP’s) commodity markets and foresight representative, Khani Baloyi, also participated on the panel.
Baloyi pointed out that the plan also intended to encourage previously marginalised groups to participate in the agricultural sector.
“The challenge, though, is balancing the different sides of the story. On the one side you have the producer who wants to produce and make a profit, and then on the other side you have the consumer who wants to purchase products at an affordable price,” she said.
“We could focus on empowering the consumer more, but then it is not plausible for the producer. It’s also important to note that we focus on long-term plans that have long-term benefits, than focusing on only short-term plans.”
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