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Mbali Nwoko explores the groundbreaking ways AI is transforming the agriculture sector, empowering stakeholders across the entire agri-value chain, from smallholder farmers and researchers to financiers and exporters

For decades, technology has been a transformative force in South African agriculture, from the introduction of mechanised equipment to the widespread adoption of precision farming techniques. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as the next frontier, pushing the boundaries of innovation and propelling the sector towards a more sustainable and productive future.

The challenges and the promise

South African agriculture faces a multitude of challenges. Climate change disrupts weather patterns, leading to unpredictable droughts and floods. Water scarcity remains a constant threat, particularly in arid regions. Loadshedding or disruptive grid power supply has severely affected the primary agricultural sector, particularly for the larger established farming production areas where solar infrastructure is not sustainable in powering large farming infrastructure for long periods of time. Dwindling national infrastructure such as roads and ports has put increased pressure on the logistics and carbon footprint of agricultural goods, having a long-term effect on consumers on the pricing of goods and services. Increased interest rates make borrowing money more expensive than in recent years, and the instability of the Rand currency puts pressure on imports, primarily raw materials. Additionally, the ever-growing global population demands a consistent increase in food production while adhering to environmentally-friendly practices. In this complex landscape, AI offers a compelling solution. By providing producers with real-time, data-driven insights that can be shared with their stakeholders and partners along the agri-value chain, AI empowers them to optimise decision-making, navigate challenges, and ultimately, cultivate abundance.

AI on the ground: Empowering South African farmers

Imagine having a personalised agricultural advisor readily available 24/7. This is precisely the power of AI. Existing technologies illustrate the potential: farmers can utilise AI-powered tools to keep digital records, analyse historical and real-time weather patterns, and predict potential outbreaks of plant and animal diseases. AI takes this analysis a step further by translating data into actionable insights. It can recommend optimal planting depths based on specific crops, soil conditions, and climatic forecasts. AI can also predict potential yields and losses based on weather data, suggesting the best harvest times to minimise post-harvest spoilage. Furthermore, AI can analyse laboratory data and recommend the most suitable crop genetics for a farmer’s specific location and desired commodity. The utilisation of AI still relies on human intervention, where data is constantly analysed and provided to AI systems that can learn information over time to be able to suggest the best possible outcome based on the problem you are trying to solve.

Organisations like AELA are pioneering AI solutions specifically designed for the South African agricultural context. Take AI Farmer, for instance. This innovative platform acts as a constantly accessible digital extension officer, readily equipped with the latest knowledge to address farmers’ unique challenges. In the past, South African farmers relied heavily on agricultural extension officers who would visit farms periodically. However, the vast geographical expanse of South African agriculture makes it virtually impossible for these officers to provide consistent, personalised support, especially during critical times of the production cycle. The adoption of technology on farms, especially at high levels of strategic decision-making, is still relatively low, as experienced farmers who have been doing things on their farms for years prefer to stick to what they know, having learned from best practices. However, on repetitive tasks that require less strategic thinking, the adoption of technology and automation has been absorbed at a much faster rate. And we see this with the procurement of sophisticated farming equipment such as tractors embedded with high-tech software that is able to cultivate lands more precisely than relying on human intervention, plant at the correct depths, spray and harvest efficiently. Irrigation systems that effectively monitor the timing, pH, and EC of irrigation schedules, sensors that monitor plant health, the availability of drones determining the health of tree crops, etc., and new sophisticated tracking and monitoring tools for livestock, such interventions have made farming at ground level much more advanced and efficient. Yet all these technologies come at a price; whether you adopt them or not, you will either pay for it financially or bear the burden of having to do things the harder route, which will cost you more in the long run.

Beyond the farm: The ripple effect of AI

The transformative power of AI extends beyond the farm gate. Financial institutions, for example, can leverage AI to assess risk profiles and tailor loan products to smallholder farmers, fostering greater financial inclusion within the agricultural sector. Additionally, AI can be used to optimise logistics and supply chains, ensuring that agricultural products reach consumers efficiently, minimising spoilage, and maximising profits for farmers and retailers alike.

For exporters, AI can provide valuable insights into global market trends and consumer preferences. This allows them to optimise their offerings, target specific markets, and ultimately, secure a competitive edge in the international marketplace.

The adoption of AI within financial institutions and insurance companies is yet to be further explored, as to create a more inclusive offering for smaller farmers that are sometimes often neglected and underserved. For years, many organisations have tried numerous interventions to solve the crisis of smallholder farmers being given access to finance for their operations. Those operating on rural and leased land, how does AI solve the problem of security when seeking funding? One can almost say that AI going deeper into solving complex agri problems can even change policy and regulation, making it more adaptive to the pace at which farmers require funding and agribusiness requires more support from a regulatory basis. All these efforts will help alleviate pressures that agribusiness and companies alike along the value that they are currently experiencing.

The private sector cannot merely solve this problem alone; however, farmer organisations, the public and private sectors need all to be on the same page about the impact of AI. This translates to increased food security, improved export potential, and a more robust agricultural economy that can create jobs and contribute to rural development.

The road ahead: Investing in a sustainable future

The integration of AI into South African agriculture is not without its challenges. Concerns regarding data privacy, access to technology in rural areas, and the potential displacement of human labour need to be addressed proactively.

However, by fostering collaboration between government, research institutions, private companies, and farmers themselves, South Africa can navigate these challenges and unlock the vast potential of AI in agriculture. Investing in AI research and development, establishing digital infrastructure in rural areas, and providing training programs for farmers on how to utilise AI tools effectively are all crucial steps towards a future where South African agriculture thrives.

Furthermore, the availability of AI services to extension officers can reduce the burden on farmers to look for information and rather make them focus on their core business while extension services can add as a value add for farms making these services much more relevant to the farmer and can increase further employment. This will also ultimately indirectly solve the high unemployment rate for educated agricultural graduates who are predominantly youth.

By embracing AI, South Africa can cultivate a more sustainable, productive, and equitable agricultural sector, ensuring food security for the nation and contributing to global food security efforts. The future of South African agriculture is brimming with potential. By harnessing the power of AI, stakeholders across the agri-value chain can work together to cultivate a more abundant and resilient future, ensuring that South Africa remains a key player in the global food production landscape.

Mbali Nwoko

By Editor