Covid-19 boosts digitisation of agriculture industry

The covid-19 shock has propelled the agriculture sector into taking a giant technological leap forward. We’ve seen farmers adopting digital and social media platforms to sell produce directly to consumers and even to conduct livestock auctions remotely. 

According to the director of the Institute for Future Research at Stellenbosch University, Dr Morné Mostert, the fourth industrial revolution was already well underway before the crisis hit. This is underscored by the fact that the global internet giant Naspers just invested R100 mil. into local agri-tech startup Aerobotics. 

Dr Mostert believes that the pandemic has brought on the rapid acceleration in the digitisation of businesses across the agri-sector.  

“That includes the production side as well as the consumer side, with consumer behaviour changed [by the pandemic and resulting lockdowns],” he says. 

As the pandemic continues to sweep across the world and with their markets disrupted by the lockdown, farmers have started breaking down the traditional notion of the agricultural market in Mzansi. 

Dr Morné Mostert says the fourth industrial revolution was well underway before the covid-19 health crisis.

In a bid to maintain their cashflow during the global crisis, fresh produce farmers have opted to use a more direct to consumer sales approach through social media. This adheres to the strict rules of the lockdown which emphasises social distancing.  

This segue towards the digitization of the agricultural industry comes as no surprise, Dr Mostert says.  

“The fourth industrial revolution was already well underway before the covid crisis hit!” 

This will be an ongoing trend, says Dr. Mostert. “On the consumption side the obvious trend is that consumers have purchased agri products particularly food products online. What that will mean is that an enormous amount of data will suddenly become available.” 

This access to data will have an enormous impact on the quality of the decision-making process of retail outlets especially, he adds.  

“The result will be that on the production side this big data will act as real time input for the kind of production necessary to serve this kind of demand. The era of data in food production and consumption has therefore been rapidly accelerated by covid.” 

Digital technology a godsend for farmers in crisis

In various sectors of the agriculture industry roleplayers, including farmers and investors, have discovered new digital and online opportunities thanks to the pandemic. 

Livestock auctions have had a turbulent six months. In November last year, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) saw auctions banned until February. Then came the coronavirus. Lockdown regulations pertaining to the status of live auctions as an essential service have been the source of conflict between farmers and the South African Police.  

Farmers have now opted to conduct auctions through social media. The beginning of May saw the Kwa-Zulu Natal elite Nguni auction strike gold when an Nguni bull was reportedly sold at a record-breaking R 310 000 on an auction conducted through WhatsApp. 

Facebook seems to be becoming the new farmer’s market. To ease their cashflow concerns, South African farmers have banded together and created a Facebook group which allows citizens to buy directly from the farmer. The Koop direk van die boer group was started on the 1st of May and added tens of thousands of members in a few weeks.  

On 20 May, global internet group Naspers announced that it would invest R100 million through its business funding initiative Naspers Foundry into the Western Cape-based agritech start–up Aerobotics. The group sites the importance of food security as the reason behind their investment.   

“The Aerobotics platform provides a positive contribution towards helping sustain [food security]. The importance has been highlighted further in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, with agriculture considered a critical infrastructure,” Naspers chief executive officer Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa said in a media release.  

Aerobotics was founded in 2014 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer. It is a subscription based artificial intelligence company that provides smart tools for the agricultural industry to manage crops.

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