[Column] Kabelo Makwane: Agriculture and its future on Mars

Cloud computing is the delivery of on-demand computing services, from applications to storage and processing power, which is typically on a pay as you go basis over the internet.

One benefit of using cloud computing services is avoiding the upfront cost and complexity of owning and maintaining your own IT infrastructure, and instead simply paying for what you use as and when you use it. 

When thinking about the agricultural industry, there are practical applications for the use of cloud computing that create a whole ecosystem, from sensors and monitoring tools that collect soil data to agricultural field images and observations from human actors on the ground accurately feeding data repositories along with their GPS coordinates.

Agribusiness needs more effective tools to engage with the smallholder farmer. At the same time, the smallholder farmer needs to be empowered with information, access to markets and financial services. To achieve this, mobile phone technology from Vodacom Business can play a game-changing role.

The Vodacom Business technology the Connected Farmer service gives a readily available message functionality allowing for real-time communication with other farmers on the database, transactional capabilities which support electronic vouchers and a companion application called AgriSuite Plus that provides content of practical agricultural value to field workers.

This content includes topics such as crop and livestock production management, crop descriptions, production programs, soil preparation and pest and disease identification (farmers using smartphones are able to download the AgriSuite Plus app.

Vodacom Connected Farmer is a cloud-based web and mobile software solution that links enterprises to smallholder farmers through the transfer of industry-related information, which equips the farmer to make better decisions about crop rotation and improve efficiencies in order to deliver better produce and consistently improve yields 

Farmers can also take advantage of knowledge-based repositories that contain information related to farming practices, agriculture innovations, pesticides, seeds, fertilizers, nutrients and equipment.

However, with the onset of technology, there is the valid fear and resistance that comes with it, especially considering the fact that the agriculture industry is driven by smallholder farmers, who more often than not do not have access to technology. 

Kabelo asserts that Vodacom Business is aware of the fact that rural areas of South Africa are under-serviced with regard to connectivity. This has presented real challenges to not only the farming community, but to their customers, service suppliers and rural communities in general.

Smallholder farmers need to be empowered with information, access to markets and financial services. To achieve this, mobile phone technology from Vodacom Business can play a game-changing role. Vodacom Connected Farmer is a phone enabled enterprise solution. 

Once smallholder farmers are registered mobile enterprise users, such as agronomists, and field officers then profile these farmers and their farms and verify their identity during field visits, using Vodacom Connected Farmer on their mobile devices. The enterprise is now able to communicate with its smallholder farmer base via their mobile phones, whether individually, as a group or across the entire smallholder farming community.

Vodacom is also alive to the risks that come with the internet like breach of privacy. That is why in the Vodacom Business Connected Farmer program, there are a number of security measures which ensure that personal or financial information is protected. There is a secure, role-based authentication and authorisation that allows users to only access to those system functionalities that are relevant to them. Connected farmers also use secure cashless value and transactions through electronic vouchers. 

Potential challenges

While these resources can be used in developed countries with ubiquitous Internet access, this is not as easy to accomplish in developing economies where there may be challenges with internet access, bandwidth and power. However, even in these circumstances, we are seeing technology made available on mobile phones, providing a wealth of services to farmers powered at times by renewable sources of energy and enabled by mobile devices

Three main challenges in Africa include performance, costs and availability. 

Performance: Whether locally- or internationally-hosted, it can be a challenge to deliver reliable Cloud services to certain regions – particularly in smaller towns and rural or remote areas.

Costs: Uncontended, enterprise-grade networks can be extremely expensive, often making it challenging for the cloud business case to be compelling to both small and large enterprise

Availability: For many businesses in outlying areas, the availability of internet connection, in general, is a huge problem. South Africa still has vast patches that are underserved or entirely unserved. Certain agricultural sites for example, experience problems with basic telephonic and crude internet connections – which makes high-powered Cloud services seem like an impossibility. 

Effective adoption and implementation of this technology will encourage other sectors also, which will lead to optimal  benefit of shifting towards cloud. This will definitely have a positive impact in the overall economic development of a nation. Above all, cloud computing is a newly introduced concept and most of the developing nations are not readily willing to accept and implement it. Therefore, it needs a mass awareness and promotion among the prime stakeholders to acquire the full potential of it and have a well established information base for the nation. This will in return lead to a well-connected world.

Kabelo Makwane is the Managing Executive for Cloud, Hosting & Security at Vodacom Business

IBM Expands its AI and Cloud Technology for Agriculture to Africa and other global markets

For the first time, IBM says it is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

IBM has announced that it is expanding its Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI and cloud technology tailored for new crops to Africa and other markets around the world. For the first time, IBM says it is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase of arable land. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in new markets across Africa, Europe, and Australia. It will also be available in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil.

“These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment,” said Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions, IBM. “Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analyzed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.”

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers.

The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerialflights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with startup Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Companydata, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops.

IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

www.ibm.com