The development of commercially viable smallholder farmers is a key element in securing a sustainable future for agriculture in the Western Cape.
This is according to Angus Bowmaker-Falconer, research associate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), who provided a summary and main findings of the recently released Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Evaluation Report at an event in Stellenbosch last week.
Bowmaker-Falconer said an “Agri Renaissance” of higher yields, reduced costs and improved nutritional value of foods was possible for the Western Cape’s R50 billion agricultural economy if the farming sector, government and education institutions worked together to harvest the benefits of the smart technologies emerging in the 4IR.
He said one of these benefits was the potential for smart water technology and intelligent irrigation systems to dramatically reduce agricultural water use in the drought-stricken province, while maintaining and improving production levels.
Bowmaker-Falconer said the “new normal” for agriculture was a future in which agricultural technology (AgTech) enabled more efficient and sustainable farming, providing food security in an inclusive and equitable economy.
The Western Cape Department of Agriculture, commissioned the USB to provide a detailed report to obtain a strategic outlook on the future for agriculture in the province in the context of the 4IR, the emerging technologies and innovations that could change farming methods and production and the opportunities that these present for a sustainable future for both large and small farmers.
“Agriculture and agri-processing are strategically important sectors for the Western Cape, for their large absorption of unskilled labour and for their economic contribution, accounting for more than 10 percent of the regional economy, more than half of its exports, and 20 percent of South Africa’s agricultural output,”said Bowmaker Falconer.
He said the “Agri Renaissance” scenario developed by the USB researches saw agriculture embracing technology such as farm management software, precision agriculture and predictive data analytics, enabling producers to use robotics and drones to monitor crop health, soil quality and weather.
“In this best-case scenario, agriculture will benefit from the innovations of the digital economy, such as blockchain technology to provide product traceability, an increasingly important issue for consumers, and concepts such as the sharing economy and crowdfunding to stimulate the development of commercially viable smallholder farmers and agri-entrepreneurs.
"By adopting the smart and interconnected technologies of the new industrial era, agriculture in the Western Cape has the opportunity to reposition its brand, engaging consumers through new digital platforms, attracting new career entrants to high-tech employment applications,” said Bowmaker-Falconer.
He warned, however, against the creation of a digital divide, wherein only certain role players benefited from 4IR opportunities, saying that the sector and government needed to work together to create an enabling environment for small-scale farmers to access technology, training and finance.
Economic Opportunities MEC Alan Wind said it was up to the Western Cape to ensure that the province made the most of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and was not stuck in the first, second, or third revolution because it was important for food security across the region.
Winde said key to ensuring an agricultural renaissance would be collaboration, and “connecting the dots” between various players and sectors to ensure that they were able to develop and grow together.
“We need to join the dots between agriculture, health, education and the private sector. We are home to some amazing fintech development and we should be harnessing those skills and ideas in agriculture. I’m pleased with the research finding that there is room to create new jobs and retain people for future skills. We need to be asking ourselves how we are going to get Generation Z to get their boots muddy,” said Winde.
He said currently, the average age of an artisan in the Western Cape is 60.
“We need to change that so young people have the skills and knowledge that will equip them to be the drone pilots, food technologists, coders and developers that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require,”said Winde.
Bowmaker-Falconer said the scope of the 4IR went beyond smart and connected machines.
“We are pivoting towards a fusion of the physical and the virtual world. Interoperability, advanced artificial intelligence and autonomy are becoming integral parts of a new industrial era. What sets the fourth industrial revolution apart from its predecessors, is that change is not only fast, but is expanding exponentially across multiple areas of a deeply interconnected world, leading to ‘unparalleled paradigm shifts’ in the economy, business and society. Touching every aspect of human life, technology advances are spread widely via the internet, and available at relatively low cost,” said Bowmaker-Falconer.