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Supermarkets increasingly invest in production technology
Technology secures consistency of supply and competitiveness
Agricultural technology is very expensive because of economies of scale. At a roundtable organised by Landbouweekblad at the recent Fresh Connections conference, Louis de Kock, owner of Wildeklawer Boerdery, gave the example of a small potato lifter.
“It has a gearbox that is so low-tech that it runs on grease, not even on oil, but it costs R150,000 [€9,600] to R180,00 [€11,500] while you can buy a car for that money. But what’s great for me is that we’ve been able to tap into other technologies for the last couple of years for instance smart phones. It’s cheap, it’s available and here you can find the most profitable technology for rural areas. I think this new technology like smart phones and satellite technology has really improved conditions in rural areas.” He is positive about the possibilities of technology for farming like 3-D printing, off-site management and artificial intelligence.
James Lonsdale, Spar’s national fresh produce manager, used lettuce production in South Africa to illustrate the impact of technology. “Six, seven years ago we started looking at our lettuce production and specifically summer production, generally it’s produced on open lands. During a hail storm within five minutes you can lose eight or ten weeks’ worth of production. If you don’t have lettuce on your shelf, it’s known as a ‘basket-dropper’: a customer will walk into a shop and if he can’t find lettuce, he’ll walk out of that shop, even though he was also looking for other products. So it’s a vital product. So we started investing in production under hail nets using nutrient film technology, quite an advanced form of hydroponics. Since we’ve gone down this road, we haven’t had a single day without lettuce. Another thing we’re looking at, is vertical hydroponics or aeroponics, focusing on high-value crops, so we’re looking at strawberry and pepper production, but it’s still in the pilot phase.”
Lettuce: a 'basket-dropper' item for customers
“Technology gives more consistency of supply. We need products seven days a week, throughout the year,” he continued.
Drones and remote imaging technology
“The expensive aspect of drones is the sensor but prices have dropped but it’s about infrastructure that gives farmers access to the data. So we’re looking at building service hubs around the country, people setting up a business and they would own the drone and they could potentially go out to farmers and offer them the information at rates that are affordable. I think there’s also opportunity to subsidise the cost by getting people down the value chain involved in having access to this data, like retailers, crop insurance providers or financiers, other people who’re interested in this aggregated data could help subsidise it,” said Benjy Meltzer, co-founder of Aerobotics, a South African company developing satellite and drone analytics for use in the agricultural sector.
“With the advances in computing power, the boundaries are endless. We can bridge the gap between people who’re needing the technology the most, small-scale farmers, and the technology that’s out there,” he continued.
To keep abreast you have to take ownership of new technology, said Wessel Lemmer, senior agricultural economist at Absa Bank. “What excites me, is that it brings back economies of scale to the individual producer, making him more competitive.”
“But be careful not to be at the bleeding edge of technology,” warned Louis de Kock. “I’ve seen big farmers running out of capital to finalise big projects. Technology must make economic sense.”
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