Internet of things helps feed the masses
A new digital agricultural solution is using the Internet of things (IOT) to try combat malnutrition and boost food security in Africa.
The project aims to leverage technology to help build sustainable protein production for African communities, drive job creation and support the rise of innovative small businesses.
Aquaponics integrates intensive farming of fish and hydroponics in a continuous closed loop. The ammonia-rich water from the fish tanks is circulated to plants in a greenhouse, where it is converted into nitrate which is an essential fertilising agent for the plants. The plants are also used to clean the water and circulate it back to the fish.
IFS and Matsei have been testing the solution on a working farm near Pretoria which uses next-generation technologies such as IOT and IFS's Enterprise Operational Intelligence (EOI) software as well as advanced analytics to automate and monitor the aquaponics operations in real-time. They showcased the pilot study at an event in Johannesburg last week.
"If you look at this project, there is a lot of monitoring that has to happen: quality of water, temperature of water, amount of gasses in the water, and make sure all of these are managed and run properly so that you don't lose any fish," Mohamed Cassoojee, MD and country manager for IFS South Africa, told ITWeb in an interview.
He said the companies found the most effective way of doing this is to automate as much as possible through IOT.
"We can use weight sensors, do quality of water checks, make sure there is no fluctuation of power, we can make sure that the pumps are clean, that the filters are clean, and that the water is flowing consistently, that the fish food is enough, so that we make sure the success rate of the protein farm is quite significantly higher.
"Because we introduce connectivity through satellite or GSM, we can monitor it from a remote control room in real-time so if anything goes wrong, we can have trained people to manage this and respond to any issues," Cassoojee added.
"That is where our strength lies. We come from an enterprise resource planning and enterprise asset management background, so for us that is core to what we do. Collecting that information and making sense of it is what we have been doing for 35 years; we are just applying it in a different environment now," said Stephen Keys, president of IFS's business in Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
Leon van Deventer, director at Matsei Technologies, said the pilot farm runs on industrial IOT, which is ideal for mission-critical monitoring of all aspects of the aquaponics loop.
"If you have a 40-ton operation, at any point in time you have in the vicinity of R500 000 to R1 million worth of fish food in those tanks. So if one of the parameters runs out of control for one day and those fish die, you lose the fish and you lose the investment of the food. So for us it's mission-critical stuff," he told ITWeb.
The sensors are controlled through a dashboard created by IFS and the plan is to launch a regional operations control centre which will have oversight over all of the planned projects and which can step in to remotely manage elements if alerts are activated.
"The operations centre will be 90% of the IT, the other people involved will have cellphones and it will all run on a cloud-based solution which will be IFS EOI. We also anticipate building quite a number of custom apps to do the logistics, markets, orders and possibly payments as well," Van Deventer added.
Van Deventer said climate change is expected to reduce African food production by 28%, and by 2080, Africa will house 50% of global undernourished people, compared to 24% today. He said that on top of this, food production needs to be increased by 70% to meet the 2050 population estimates. Due to this, we have not only a food security and nutrition issue but also a major economic problem.
"If you take into account that 70% of jobs in Africa are in the agriculture sector and it accounts for over 25% of the GDP, then you will also realise it's going to have a major impact on the African economy. That is a double-whammy because not only is Africa not going to have enough food, but our economies will not enable us to buy and import it."
Cassoojee noted the aquaponics solution is a great way to future-proof food production because it only uses a fraction of the land needed for other types of protein farming. For example, an aquaponics farm takes about five hectares of land and for the equivalent protein production for a cattle farm you would need 5 000 hectares.
Van Deventer said smart solutions in agriculture are critical but "in Africa and other developing parts of the world, we have to integrate the smart technologies with the realities of the communities that we work in".
"We cannot deploy 'bling' First World technologies in our rural environments; it has to be workable and feasible. So from smart agriculture obviously we need an agricultural technique that is going to provide us with climatological resistance because that is the source of the problem."
Van Deventer quoted results from a study in the US, carried out with tens of thousands of people in prisons, schools and institutions, which found that when nutrition is improved in these communities, then aggression, theft and antisocial behaviour decline dramatically while cognitive skills increase significantly.
Bertus van Niekerk, COO of Matsei Technologies, emphasised that sustainability is the key to the project and the digital farming programme has to go hand-in-hand with sustainable supply chains spanning food production, logistics, retail and other support services.
"Why are people interested? It's not about aquaponics and the fish farming business. They are interested in the fact that we said we are controlling it from a digitalised perspective, allowing oversight for those people. We can see what is happening with the money, what is happening with the operations, does it work? That excites them."
Matsei used the Pretoria farm as a test case and is now ready to scale the solution across SA and the continent.
"Our target market is Africa and South Africa. We started this initiative in Ghana but it was a bit remote so we decided to do the pilot here to make sure everything worked well here. We wanted to localise it and first focus on SA and then roll it out further afield. We are also looking at Malawi, where there is a lot of interest," Van Niekerk said.
"The secret to this is the commercial model and the markets. So we needed to first make sure the commercial model was sound and we are there now. We are in final negotiations with other communities to roll out the next stage."
He said there are plans to deploy the aquaponics solution in three more communities soon: a medium-sized community in Gauteng, a small community in KwaZulu-Natal and a large community in Mpumalanga. The large community would produce 160-tons of fish and 40-tons of vegetables per month, which equates to about 350 000 meals each month for the community.
"At this point, we have your World Bank-type organisations, government organisations and other international organisations looking at funding it. But the important thing is that we build it on the basis that this thing must become self-sustainable. The funding can't continue like grant funding," Van Niekerk explained.
Keys agreed, saying there are social services in local and federal government agencies that would be interested in this type of solution.
"I also think there is a commercial angle, which for example, could be remote mining sites or remote construction sites or dams where sustainability and nutrition is really important. We see a number of different players expressing interest and that ranges from your United Nations-type sustainable development bodies through to local government agencies," Keys added.
Cassoojee said in SA, IFS is engaging with a lot of government agencies and NGOs but is also talking to its customers "because a lot of our customers have corporate social investment programmes and they are looking for something that is sustainable, that works. So with every customer engaged, there is a proposal on the table where we can work with funding models that make sense to be able to drive this out into communities."