An “agri renaissance” of higher yields, reduced costs and improved nutritional value of foods is possible for the Western Cape’s R50bn agricultural economy if the farming sector, government and education institutions work together to harvest the benefits of the smart technologies emerging in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
This is according to research by Angus Bowmaker-Falconer, an associate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
His research shows that one of these benefits of the 4IR is the potential for smart water technology to dramatically reduce agricultural water use in the drought-stricken province, while maintaining and even improving production levels. The Western Cape Department of Agriculture (WCDoA) commissioned the research.
“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% of the regional economy, more than half of its exports, and 20% of South Africa’s agricultural output,” says Bowmaker-Falconer.
The “agri renaissance” scenario developed by the USB researchers sees 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; 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.
However, Bowmaker-Falconer warns against the creation of a digital divide, wherein only certain role players benefit from 4IR opportunities.
On concerns about job losses, particularly in semi- and unskilled labour, he says technology would enable the creation of new types of jobs and that education and training would need to be prioritised in government’s response to changes brought about by the 4IR.
5 key elements
The researchers provide five key recommendations for an integrated and comprehensive response that will enable agriculture in the Western Cape to “adapt, shape and harness the potential of this disruption”.
Firstly, the WCDoA should align its vision and strategic initiatives to accelerate growth in agri-economic outputs with the desired end-state of “agri renaissance”, Bowmaker-Falconer says, and work with education institutions in the province to develop digital skills and capability for the agriculture sector.
The second key recommendation is for agriculture to engage with the rising influence of consumers, who are better informed and changing the demand for products due to concerns about food safety, quality and nutrition, fair trade and the traceability of products to origin, and the use of chemicals in production and processing.
The researchers recommend that producers turn to blockchain technology to list their products and provide verifiable information for the tracking of food origins.
They found that accelerating technology adoption in agriculture, the third recommendation, will require a widespread programme of communicating and disseminating information about new technologies and their impact, by suppliers, producers, government and scientists.
The development of commercially viable smallholder farmers is a key element in securing a sustainable future for agriculture in the Western Cape, and the focus of the fourth set of recommendations.
Bowmaker-Falconer said that government should develop the enabling conditions both to support new entrants and existing smallholder farmers.
Smallholder farmers should use concepts such as the sharing economy and crowdfunding to explore the pooling of resources and the creation of networks to strengthen their ability to produce at commercially viable scale, he said.
Finally, he says, the 4IR presents the opportunity to “reposition agriculture as a brand”.
“The agricultural value chain offers a variety of exciting and interesting career opportunities to be explored, from food and animal science through to marketing and management, economics and technology,” he says.
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