Make way for robots in the sky: How drones are transforming farming in South Africa
Drones are making agricultural practices far more efficient: cutting costs, increasing yields and contributing to environmental conservation by saving resources. But Africa will face unique socioeconomic challenges in rolling out precision agriculture technology.
A number of key industry stakeholders have confidently affirmed that drones are set to revolutionise agriculture on a global scale. It’s an assertion the market can certainly attest to, with investments in drone technology for farming purposes on a rapid incline and the global artificial intelligence market in agriculture expected to undergo a compound annual growth rate of 25.4% over the next four to five years.
In the South African context, the agricultural sector is praised as a powerful economic tool: it employs millions of unskilled labourers, constitutes more than 5% of our GDP with an impressive year-on-year growth rate of 13.1%, and, as net exporters of agricultural produce, it contributes positively to our balance of payments.
Still, there is great room for improvement. Blanket interventions mean that far more water than necessary is used for crop irrigation, excess run-off from chemical applications worsens pollution and climate change has made weather patterns less predictable. Consequently, planning for harvest season is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers. According to industry experts, these are all areas in which drone and precision agriculture technology are likely to make copious improvements.
What do drones do?
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are flown over farmlands and pastures by licensed drone pilots. Using sensory imaging technology and thermal cameras, data can be collected about anything, from livestock location to crop health and topography.
These data are interpreted to produce insights and deliver recommendations to farmers, helping them to track and herd livestock, plan and map out harvests or identify threats to crop health. The idea is to conserve resources, cut costs and increase yields by delivering targeted interventions — instead of irrigating or spraying pesticides on an entire field of crops, each crop is treated independently, in line with its individual needs.
“Through the type of data that we’re generating, we’re suggesting: rather than doing this preventatively, let’s shift towards a more reactive mindset. So, if you can monitor the state of the crop accurately enough, you’d only need to spray if and where the problem exists. It’s shifting to a mindset of treating each crop the way it needs to be treated rather than just applying broad-scale treatments across your entire crop,” says Benji Meltzer, chief technology officer at Aerobotics, the Cape Town-based data analytics company that uses precision agriculture technology to deliver actionable insights into tree and fruit health to farmers.
Meltzer and his business partner, James Paterson, founded Aerobotics in 2014. Having grown up on a citrus farm in the Western Cape, Paterson had first-hand exposure to the problems farmers faced. He describes the moment he and Paterson realised the potential of their product.
“As we spoke to more and more farmers it became pretty clear that there was real uniformity in the problems they were facing. At that stage we’d built a prototype that validated the technology and proved that it could remedy some of those problems.”
In 2017, Danny Collins bought his second title deed, securing ownership of a plot of farmland in the mountainous region of Magoebaskloof, Limpopo. The land was derelict, completely unproductive and non-income generating, he says.
It was essential that Collins planted high-value crops and used the best possible methods and materials available to make the most out of his relatively small plot. This, he explains, is what led him to use drones in the planning phases of setting up his farm.
“We brought in a company that designed our irrigation system for us. They flew a drone over the whole farm and mapped out exactly what our layout should be against the conditions in our area. Let me tell you, they mapped it very well. They also developed the design for the irrigation system to suit that layout and that was the irrigation system we ended up using.”
With the global population projected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, food insecurity is becoming a menacing and very real prospect. Moreover, competition for arid land means availability is likely to diminish over the coming years.
It is therefore imperative that food production increases in line with population growth, along with limited land and frugal use of scarce resources to avoid environmental degradation. A 2016 study by PwC found that drone planting systems significantly increase productivity, resulting in higher yields per hectare, an uptake rate of 75% and a drop in planting costs of up to 85%.
Research also suggests that drones may bolster environmental conservation efforts by making farming practices more sustainable and preserving scarce natural resources. Timiryazev State Agrarian University in Moscow used drones to monitor the health of wheat crops. This data meant farmers could treat specifically identified crops with nitrogen fertiliser, cutting their use of nitrogen by 20%.
“I think the need to get more out of your crop in a sustainable way is really relevant and it’s precision agriculture that allows for a lot of this,” explains Meltzer.
The potential economic benefits of precision agriculture technology sound promising. Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, attributes the substantial strides in the country’s export of agricultural produce to improved seed varieties and drone technology.
Since 1994 “the value of South Africa’s agriculture has more than doubled; we are exporting about half of what we produce… that’s worth about $10.2-billion annually. What has led to this is, obviously, the adoption of technology over time.”
While the capacity for agricultural-use drones to positively affect many facets of human life seems clear, implementing them nationally will not be without difficulty or consequence.
constraints on rolling out drone technology include government regulations and market-entry red tape, which make it difficult for drone companies to obtain operating licences. While this is a problem in many African countries, according to Sihlobo, South Africa’s policymakers and national government have readily embraced advances in precision agriculture technology.
“In the year 2000 in South Africa, you’d get about two tonnes of maize per hectare. Right now the average yield in South Africa is about six tonnes per hectare… You compare these results with the rest of the African continent, which hasn’t adopted the technologies that South Africa has been able to adopt: the average yield in sub-Saharan Africa for maize is 1.5 tonnes per hectare — and it hasn’t shifted since the early Nineties. South Africa has been able to achieve this growth mainly because of how willing policymakers are to allow this technology to come into the country.”
Meltzer echoes these sentiments in describing the process of establishing Aerobotics. “The [South African] government has actually helped to open up and enable innovation in the space. The challenges that we have faced are more just the challenges that any start-up faces; you need to move quite quickly and sometimes these processes can be quite slow-moving.”
While government regulations might not impose substantial constraints on rolling out agricultural drones in South Africa, there are two consequences of the technology which are yet to be addressed: its potential impact on unemployment and its exorbitant price tag.
Pietermaritzburg-based farmer Andile Ngcobo is less optimistic about the socioeconomic effects of drone technology, raising concerns about how it might affect the non-commercial, smaller-scale farmer.
“People who are first-generation farmers, which is the majority of Africa, are still trying to get into the space. Obviously, they are already at a disadvantage because it’s a very expensive industry to get into with high establishing costs. It can take years before you start seeing any results and benefits.”
If using this technology becomes standard practice for commercial farmers, rural and smaller-scale farmers in South Africa who cannot afford agricultural drone services are likely to be left behind.
“People who can afford the technology will inevitably advance much faster,” says Ngcobo.
Drone technology might also pose a threat to job security, particularly in countries where minimum wage levels are high and capital-labour substitution is prevalent. The capabilities of drones are ever-expanding to the extent that they are able to perform many of the jobs previously done by people, and in many cases more effectively.
Collins recounts the process of mapping his farmland with a drone: “In the old days they would use a surveyor with a measuring stick and they would have to survey from 1,000 different points. It would probably take you a month or two to survey the whole farm using a surveyor. With a drone, it took us a couple of minutes.”
Nevertheless, some have emphasised that drone technology might facilitate the creation of novel job opportunities. “From a job security perspective there is a risk that it shifts the way that farming works towards a more mechanised approach. I think in that world there are just different jobs to be getting created,” explains Meltzer.
A 2018 study by the World Economic Forum found that more than 75 million jobs may be lost to AI machinery before 2022, but that 133 million new jobs are expected to emerge as a result of automation. Still, the job opportunities that drone technology might bring about are likely to be geared towards skilled segments of the labour force.
“Agriculture employs the largest number of people of all South Africa’s economic sectors for the simple reason that the majority of those who work in the agricultural space are unskilled or semi-skilled,” points out Ngcobo.
Indeed, this may encourage a countrywide reskilling programme, but Ngcobo notes this might be easier in theory than in practice. Reskilling the entire agricultural labour force comes at a price and questions about whether it will be governments or farmers who incur the costs are yet to be addressed.
However, Sihlobo reckons we are not likely to see high levels of drone-for-labour substitution in the near term. “We might see this tech coming in to replace some of the jobs [in agriculture], but I don’t think that will occur within the next decade. I don’t see a lot of this coming in at a large scale in South Africa.”
In terms of the price of the technology, Collins speculates that as investment in precision agriculture continues to grow and the supply of drones increases, the cost of drone services is likely to decrease and, in turn, drones will become more accessible to smaller farmers.
“Not long ago, I went to look at a drone, just a basic domestic drone that I could use on the farm with a camera, and the prices have already come down by about 50% since the first time I looked,” he adds.
The African Union recently shared a report discussing the adoption of agricultural-use drones across various African contexts. It emphasised the need for a public-private partnership to accelerate the uptake of drone technology on the continent. It also highlighted the importance of government involvement in addressing cost and technical barriers through offering subsidies, encouraging the establishment of cooperatives and building a supportive policy framework to enable nationwide adoption of the technology.
“The reality is that technology tends to make things easier, better and more productive. As soon as you place limitations on it, people find a way around it anyway. I think over the next 10 to 15 years you’re going to see a major uplift in drone technology for agricultural purposes. I cannot see it being avoided,” says Collins.
This seems to be the consensus among most industry stakeholders: the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the technology that it brings will change the way farming is done whether we like it or not.
It is imperative that governments take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the technology is made accessible to farmers of all types. With primary agriculture forming a significant part of most African countries’ economies, the continent cannot afford to be left behind. DM/OBP