A new agritech solution could be used to not only improve food production but also drive accelerated job creation and support new small businesses.

IFS has collaborated with Matsei Technologies and Consulting on the creation of a digital aquaponics farming solution.

The two companies have demonstrated the system using a live model of a working farm that uses technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), enterprise operational intelligence EOI) and advanced analytics to automate and monitor fish aquaponic operations in realtime.

The working site is a farm near Pretoria.

Mohamed Cassoojee, MD and country manager of IFS South Africa, says the innovative farming system is garnering attention from around the world.

The world is facing a range of challenges, which are exacerbated in Africa, Cassoojee says.

Climate change is a real challenge for Africa, where it is expected to reduce African food production by as much as 28%, even while an increasing population is driving a need for a 70% increase in production.

Already, Africa is home to 24% of the world’s undernourished people, and this is expected to grow to 50% by 2080.

A lack of protein and other nutritious food is also contributing to socio-economic problems, while the agricultural industry currently employs 70% of the workforce and contributes 25% of South Africa’s GDP.

The new solution aims to create protein and vegetables in a single closed system. “And it uses about 1% of the land required if we used traditional farming methods,” Cassoojee points out.

Leon Van Deventer, director and agricultural engineer at Matsei Technologies, explains that the solution is a product of a ecosystem that includes technology, aquaponics and nutritional expertise.

He points out that what a smart agricultural solution needs to deliver includes: climatological and pest resistance, a diet that is balance with quality protein and vegetables, water and energy efficiency, compact size and security, a shelf life that improves processing and packaging, and effective market, logistics and commercial management.

The aquaponics environment ticks all the boxes, he adds.

An aquaponics environment is closed system where fish are cultivated in tanks, with the ammoniac water from their tanks fed to plants which take nourishment from it and return clean water to the fish.

The system is managed using technology.

“There are a number of things that have to be managed on a 24/7 basis,” Van Deventer says. These include power supply, water flow rates, temperature, water chemical levels, feeding regimens and security.

“What is really required is to provide that 24/7 management,” he says.

To help solve this issue, IoT sensors are fitted to critical equipment, and uses satellite connectivity to feed back data to a central management centre.

Getting access to stock and supplies is crucial. “You need to control this on a regional basis, with a regional depot, Van Deventer says.

Another issue is co-ordinated harvesting, marketing and sales.

Financial and commercia mentoring is crucial, he adds. A balanced budgeting and commercial management cycle is needed, and has to be provided.

Additional community revenue generation is a crucial point,” Van Deventer adds. “If there is no revenue generation associated with a project, people will lose interest in it.”

“All of these challenges have resulted in lower investor confidence in the past,” he adds. “So one of the very important things we have had to add is to instill the mechanisms and instruments that prove to investors that this is under control and sustainable.”

IFS will contribute to this with its centralised management where investors can log into see what is happening on the ground.

The overall solution extends the farming operations with a supporting infrastructure that includes a market analysis, production and planning, MRP, collective sourcing inbound logistics, production management, marketing co-ordination, harvesting and processing, outbound logistics, marketing and sales.

The regional operation control centre will run on IFS technology.

The Integrated Operations Support Centre is crucial to developing regional capacity and doing all the co-ordination required ot make the aquaponics project a success. Importantly, it will also be involved in ongoing research and development, will incubate secondary businesses and help to grow the smart community footprint.

The Matsei pilot plant uses locally-grown solutions. “We have put a lot of effort into developing local solutions, using materials we can get from the local building supplier,” Van Deventer says. “A lot of effort has gone into solutions that can be constructed and maintained in a rural environment.”

The total installation is presented as a packaged turnkey solution. “We want a solution in a box with no unknown metrics,” Van Deventer says. “We need to be able to offer any prospective client a validated and feasible solution.”

The agritech solution can help communities to further develop as it provides a platform from which e-government, e-health, e-learning, electronic banking, online purchasing and smart security can be built.

“We will put down energy, water, connectivity, basic computer literacy and rural logistics – and this provides the platform for these other services.” Van Deventer explains.

Potential investors include government, feeding schemes, corporations looking at CSI projects, communities themselves, international agencies and fresh product markets.

Stephen Keys, president of IFS’s business in Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa said: “As executive sponsor for our global corporate social responsibility programme, I believe we have an obligation to give something back to the communities in which we operate, while creating value for organisations with whom we do business.”

A Stats SA survey in 2018 indicates that a third of children in Gauteng and Free State were stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition. “This is a challenge we are passionate about helping to solve,” says Bertus van Niekerk, chief operating officer at Matsei Technologies and Consulting. “We believe that this programme is a localised African turnkey solution that encourages good nutrition for human development and behavior whilst being a sustainable community aquaponics solution for the future of Africa.”