January 2020 – June 2020
The application of advanced technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, computer vision, drones, and the internet of things has the potential to transform the agricultural sector under the right enabling conditions. The application of these technologies in the agricultural sector is part of a broader digital transformation that is occurring globally and is increasingly manifest in the agriculture sector.
The digitalisation of agriculture involves the conversion of measurements of agricultural inputs and outputs into digitally stored data for use in automated systems and applications that provide information and assist decision-making. Hence, this transformation unveils an array of opportunities that may help to address South Africa’s food security challenges, create jobs, and address historical inequalities.
There are also risks involved in the digitalisation of agriculture. These include the potential for digitalisation to cause job losses, further marginalise African countries in the global supply chain, as well as increase or create new inequalities.
This analysis demonstrates that in South Africa, there is a need for the government and policymakers to look into the agriculture sector as part of the entire value chain; as a measure to mitigate the challenges such as the risks associated to employment, data governance and access to finance. The findings also highlight the importance of increasing digital inclusion amongst farmers as a measure to increase their visibility in the wider value chain ecosystem; improving on the physical infrastructure directly related to the sector (road, water, power); and introducing policy frameworks that address open data, data protection and governance.
It is also important for government to promote an environment for public-private interplays (PPIs) as well as a landscape for large-scale commercial farmers to support small-holder farmers, as these can aid in supporting the development of small-scale subsistence farmers into small commercial farmers. In addition, the role of PPIs and commercial farmers is a cross-cutting issue that needs to be integrated at all levels of agriculture development for the well-being of the agriculture sector as a whole, including emerging and small-scale farmers. The policy recommendations arising from this research are to:
- develop policies that encourage the uptake of appropriate technology within the agriculture sector while also addressing the emerging challenges regarding data protection, data ownership and governance;
- create educational programmes to provide the youth with the skills to address the changing needs of the agriculture sector, while at the same time demonstrating awareness of entrepreneurship career opportunities that are emerging along the entire value chain;
- encourage the development of platforms to encourage commercial farmers to engage in knowledge transfer and the up-skilling of small-scale farmers to ensure they are not left behind in the digitalisation of the sector;
- ensure a more equitable and inclusive mechanisation of the agricultural sector by encouraging the sharing of equipment (such as tractors) as a way to provide logistical support for small-holder farmers to gain efficient access to the market and the wider value chain;
- work with the private sector to strengthen digital infrastructure to ensure constant and reliable internet connectivity in rural areas while enacting regulation that makes data and smartphone devices more accessible for small-holder farmers and poorer communities;
- respond to water and power shortages by promoting innovative and sustainable practices, especially amongst small-holder farmers; and
- improve access to finance for small-scale and emerging farmers by fueling more funding, engaging with the formal financial sector and harnessing the benefits of alternative finance solutions such as microfinance and crowdfunding, while also creating funding opportunities for local entrepreneurs.