Combining advanced technology to shape the future of farming

The agricultural sector faces many challenges. Over farming, drought conditions, nutrient preservation, access to information, and a population expected to double over the next few decades are just the tip of the iceberg.

To help farmers tackle these challenges, technology creators’ main objective is to formulate solutions that can be integrated into traditional farming equipment and processes while maximizing their efficiency. Conscious of the fact that fresh produce loses 30% of nutrients three days after harvest, Centurion-based NGA Data Science Experts devised a solution to help foster farming practices in urban areas.

This helps speed up the process of getting the harvest to the shelves quicker while preserving nutrients. Farming closer to residential and retail spaces means the fresh produce can reach the market within 24 hours of harvest. “The offering is an end-to-end solution, using IoT and AI to monitor the tunnel operations, which enables us to action any issues identified remotely or automatically,” says Mark Germishuys, NGA’s CEO. “The solution is used to determine the optimal frequency, the concentration of nutrient solutions, as well as environmental controls on ambient conditions such as temperature and light.”

BMEC Technologies is a Cape Town-based multi-spectrum engineering consulting entity founded by Heidi Wilson and Raphael Smith. The company is equally enthusiastic about integrating IoT into traditional farming equipment for a dual outcome of speeding up and simplifying their daily routines.

“We take a piece of agricultural equipment and work with our clients to establish how this equipment could become advanced and competitive through remote monitoring and/ or remote control,” – says Wilson. “We then build the full stack of electronics, software, mobile applications, servers, and web applications to enable the solution.”

The cost factor plays a major role in deciding to adopt new technological solutions in the agricultural sector. The traditional resources are usually tagged with a hefty price. Another obstacle is the misconception that the latest technology is expensive and misaligned in function. Smith has identified the agricultural sector as the toughest market to break into as a technology company. He indicates that the challenges range from the misinformation around the practicality of the proposed solutions, and how these (solutions) complement the working conditions that are encountered by farming practitioners on a daily basis.

“We’ve spent years building solutions that thrive in the harshest conditions, including corrosive chemicals, high (and low) temperatures, continuous vibrations, and areas characterized by poor access to telecommunication networks,” says Smith. “We decided to customize our offering to build a low-cost IoT solution and a user interface that is simple and accessible. That allows our clients to jump straight into the world of IoT without destabilizing their existing equipment once it’s integrated.”

NGA’s offering of solutions targeting urban farming using plantation tunnels is game-changing in how it mitigates environmental obstacles attributed to land-based farming. What sets this solution apart? “The nutrient solution and water being fed to the plants is not exposed to sunlight and minimizes loss through evaporation, reducing water consumption and quantities of nutrients that need to be added to the system,” says Germishuys. “Speed of plant growth is increased, and earlier detection of plant diseases helps prevent wastage.”


Bi-directional bridge

NGA’s solution is still in its developmental phase and was instrumental in producing 15 000 units of lettuce and basil in tunnels equal to a tennis court. According to Germishuys, the solution is an in-house R&D project. “We grew basil for 12 continuous months in 2019, which is a season-green, without any growth problems. We are able to grow certain greens out of season without any issues,” he says. NGA is currently in advanced talks to launch the solution globally.

Wilson and Smith believe that BMEC’s solution has succeeded in removing the preexisting misconceptions about the role of modern technology in farming. “We continue to work with our clients to expand our offering, develop their intellectual property, and improve their competitiveness,” says Smith. “We’ve managed to create a bi-directional bridge between the real world of farming and the abstract world of software,” adds Wilson.