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Population growth and the effects of climate change threaten food and job security. Sustainable development, especially in the agricultural sector, needs to embrace the fourth industrial revolution in order to unlock efficiencies and competitiveness.

Technology in agriculture, called agritech, offers exciting and innovative solutions to age-old problems, where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, coupled with cutting-edge hardware provide a glimpse of what the future of food security looks like.

Agritech Africa is launching in Cape Town at the CTICC and will become an annual conference bringing together the top thought leaders and innovators who all have one thing in common: the pursuit of improving agriculture and working towards food security in Africa by embracing the best that technology has to offer.

Technology has improved farming for a long time. This spans from the introduction of machines that could make harvesting more efficient, all the way through advanced fertilisers to improve yield.

The fourth industrial revolution is disrupting every aspect of life, and agriculture is no different. Various companies and initiatives have emerged that lean on fourth industrial revolution technologies to solve some of the most pressing issues in agriculture, some of which have been around since the beginning of time.

Technology’s potential is clear when one considers Aerobotics, a South African agritech company that uses drone technology and bespoke programs all aimed at improving the yields and predictability in the citrus industry.

Benji Meltzer, Co-founder and CTO of Aerobotics, says that “Agritech will enable growers to farm in a more scalable and data-driven manner.

“Additionally, in Africa in particular, agritech can help centralise knowledge and distribute it to those that need it most, particularly impactful in undeveloped markets”.

Scalable and efficient food production will have a direct link to food security, as both quality and quantity of food can be measured and distributed, and wastage will be limited. By way of example, Meltzer explains that “Aerobotics’ software, Aeroview, combines weekly satellite data, drone imagery and scout information to track farm performance on a per-tree basis, allowing tree crop farmers to take a data-driven approach when optimising the health of their farm.”

The technology combines advanced AI and high-resolution aerial imagery in order to provide per-tree insight.  Aerobotics has also developed a yield estimation tool, which uses machine learning models to identify a fruit and estimate their size and colour at harvest. In turn, farmers, packers and marketers are able to better estimate yields on citrus fruit. The knock-on effect that predictability provides for planning all down the value chain is clear to see.

Droughts and soil erosion are another huge concern. Meltzer makes mention that outside of Aerobotics, there are also new technologies to monitor and manage irrigation (helping with drought management) and soil quality (soil erosion) through combining in-field and remote sensors.

Cherry Irrigation is making movements in irrigation technology across Africa, in customising irrigation systems. Cherry Irrigation Director Charles Cherry says customising irrigation is crucial in light of the need to cultivate high-value crops or in situations where resources are scarce or of lower quality.

By converting conventional drip irrigation to low-flow drip irrigation on citrus, water savings have increased, as well as ease of use and the quality of produce. They also found, in upgrading automation and emitters in a blueberry nursery, that improvement in water savings as well as better distribution uniformity has led to higher quality and quantity of plants being produced.

In the Western Cape in South Africa, where “Day Zero” and the panic around the droughts forced the province to confront issues of water availability, the Fruitlook initiative was formed to arm farmers with insights to improve efficient production.

Fruitlook uses satellite data to provide farmers, free of charge, with seasonal trends and information on their farms. This data can help with decision making with regards to irrigation, where and when to do it, and the quantity of water that is needed.

According to a Brookings Institute report in 2019, one in three Africans live below the global poverty line, making the ability to predict and react using technology a matter of humanitarian importance, over and above the obvious business case.

Evidently, the introduction of new-age farming technologies is the way forward in terms of sustainable development and efficient output, as the fourth industrial revolution can play a huge role in positively impacting production efficiency, which has direct effects on both food and job security.

Agritech’s ability to target niche agricultural sectors and also centralise and distribute knowledge, especially in South Africa, allows for change to be implemented at ground level and in underdeveloped markets and then grow both locally and continent wide.

It is to this backdrop that Agritech Africa is bringing together the best minds on the continent to provide a platform for sustainable agriculture in Africa. Agritech Africa 2020 takes place from the 17th to the 19th of June 2020 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC).