Home Entrepreneurs Agri-innovation Meet the app-building brothers who farm for the future

Meet the app-building brothers who farm for the future

Vredendal farming brother Eric and Willem van Zyl breathe new life into Mzansi’s agricultural industry. Their challenge was not merely to diversify their family farming operation, but to create an app that would be beneficial to farmers nationwide

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In agriculture, two heads are always better than one. In the case of Eric and Willem van Zyl, this approach led to a multi-lingual farming app.

More than two years since its launch, The Agri Assistant app has become a go-to for hundreds of farmers, assisting them with industry advice, contacts, news, and much more.

farmers' app
Eric van Zyl has always wanted to follow in his fathers footsteps. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Growing up on the farm meant that the duo’s passion and love for agriculture was engrained in them at an early age.

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Their father, Willem van Zyl, is a third generation wine grape farmer who taught them everything they know.

“Sometimes he took me for a ride on the harvesting machine,” says Eric.

“Oh my word, I was always so scared. Think about it, as a child the harvesting machine looks very high up from the ground. It looks like you’re on top of the world.”

Young Eric spent so much time with his father that by the end of his primary school days he already knew that agriculture was for him.

Willem, on the other hand, was not too convinced. He initially wanted to pursue agriculture as a child, but ended up studying computer software and started working in the IT industry.

He liked it so much that he decided to make a career out of it. “I am not physically involved in the day-to-day running of the farm,” Willem says.

Improving the family farm

Eric says he discovered many shortcomings when he entered the agricultural space on a full-time basis.

For years, their farm produced wine grapes, but Eric discovered that this was no longer working for them.

With his help, they diversified into macadamia nuts after Eric completed multiple courses in macadamia nut production. At one stage, he even lived with another producer to learn from them.

Since then, the farming family have also diversified into citrus and raisin production.

But more needed to be done, Eric felt. This time it was addressing access to reliable industry information.

farmers' app
Willem van Zyl at one point wanted to farm, but chose a career in the IT industry instead. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“For example,” Eric points out, “wine farmers usually know all the different cultivars, but they don’t necessarily know everything off by heart and are forced to go back to books. Nowadays, people do not want to drive around with a lot of papers and books.”

As a result, Eric and his brother decided to build a farmers’ app that contains all the information in a database and is available to its users for free.

After weeks of deliberation, they eventually realised that the general information which people lacked was right in front of them.

They gathered information from farmers and industry experts.

“We originally developed the app to help only agricultural producers, but in the development process we realised that the app had much more potential than we thought at the beginning.”

Birth of innovative app

Features on the app now include a countrywide listing of organisations that support farmers. It also references material for various agricultural products, including soil types, planting schedules, pests, and disease control.

After lots of hard work, in August 2019, the brothers were ready to release their app into the world.

At the time, it was being tested by a small group of industry experts, after which they provided first access to everyone who signed up for their launch notifications.

“Even if you have been farming for 15 years, you should never be opposed to listening to new information and learning from other people.”

The following month, in September 2019, The Agri Assistant app was released into the “wild”. It had taken three months to build and launch.

Was it easy? No, setting it up required lots of help from farmers and experts.

“We needed to know what the industry needed and wanted. Once we had that information, we had to adapt the app accordingly. It was a lot testing, adding features and then removing them again,” Willem says.

Working with family is…

According to Willem working with his brother is easy. They each contribute differently to the app. Willem has the technical expertise while Eric has the farming knowledge and industry contacts.

“It’s always nice when we attend meetings together because we complement each other so well,” Willem explains.

Where Eric would be answering practical farming questions, Willem will would, for example, answer marketing questions. This helps the duo to market their farming app to various markets in a unique way.

“Eric and I had many of the same interests as children. Even now, we love the same books, stories and activities. Now as adults we hunt a lot together and catch fish together, so we have a very good relationship. That’s why I think it’s so easy to get along and work together,” Willem explains.

farmers' app
Eric van Zyl and his father, Willem van Zyl, farm together in the Western Cape. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Eric says he may not have years of experience, but urges farmers to never think they know everything.

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“Even if you have been farming for 15 years now, you should never be opposed to listening to new information and learning from other people. Never think you know everything,” he says.

He adds that as farmer one must have a passion for the industry.

“I love nature. Without a love for nature, you cannot farm at all. Besides that, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty, work long hours with little sleep. All of that is part of agriculture.”

Right now, the two brothers plan to expand the availability of their farming app into other parts of Africa. Their next goal is to add livestock-related info to the app and include all other sub-sectors of the agricultural industry.

Hear the Van Zyl brothers on Farmer’s Inside Track

Option 1:Click here to listen on Spotify (all mobile and other devices). 

Option 2:Click here to listen on any Apple device. 

Option 3: Click here to listen on Google Podcasts. 

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Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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