Agri tech investment vital for industry output, export growth

According to Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela, Group Executive, Impact and Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), South African agriculture needs more investment and the implementation of the latest technology to boost output, not only for local consumption, but also for vitally needed exports to boost foreign exchange earnings. “This can be accomplished through an increase in research and development (R&D) investment”, says Mkhabela.

Opportunities to increase exports exist provided they conform to international standards such as traceability.

Speaking at the Africa Agri Tech Conference and Expo in Pretoria he said that current overall expenditure on R&D in South Africa was only R32bn a year, which equates to 0.8% of GDP.

This is way below the 1.5% R&D investment proposed in the National Development Plan (NDP). Agriculture gets only R2.6-billion or 0.8% of the current amount, which is way below requirements. This sum is made up of a contribution of 44.6% from the public coffers, 38.9% from private organisations and companies and 16.5% from foreign sources.

Amplifying returns

Mkhabela lobbied for more financial support for the ARC which he says will provide big returns for the future growth of agriculture in terms of expanding exports, providing employment and the overriding objective of providing food security, in a world where the population explosion is putting a big strain on food supplies.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is another organisation that has a big focus on assisting the agricultural industry and is deeply involved the latest technological developments.

Dr Moses Azong Cho, Research Group Leader, Precision Agriculture at the CSIR highlighted a need to create a dedicated group of scientists to assist in adapting precision farming techniques to suit local conditions and budgets. Current precision farming projects under development at the CSIR are driven using affordable satellite data to produce Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) information.

Dr Santosh Ramchuran, Research Group Leader, Bioprocess Development at the CSIR advocated the use of more bio-based control agents as fertilisers and pesticides to replace existing chemical products. This provides South African companies and organisations an opportunity to develop these products as there appear to be no or few local manufacturers at present.

Ramchuran announced that the CSIR was involved in developing these products and already had some ready for commercialisation. One of these, in prototype form, had already contributed to an 85.2% increase in wheat crop yield. It is now awaiting proposals from SMMEs to bring this unique product to market.

Scientific presentations related to agriculture and Africa agri tech included content from the Department of Science and Innovation, The Innovation Hub, the Agricultural Research Council and CSIR.