Future legend

Delivering food security through technology

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With the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, the legendary gryphon has the mobility to soar through the air and the muscle to take on the strongest opponents. As such, it is the perfect symbol for the Gryphon Corporation, an engineering and technology start-up founded in 2018 by two young aeronautical entrepreneurs, Samuel Mathekga and Clive Mathe.

Focused on designing and developing innovative solutions for solving economic and societal problems in Africa, the company has been incubated at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria since 2018.

Mathekga and Mathe are advocates for data-driven farming practices. They are currently working on creatively engaging large and small-scale agricultural through crop-spraying drones and agricultural data consultancy, advocating for data-driven farming practice.

“A crop-spraying drone platform that is cheaper, more efficient and more reliable than any traditional crop-spraying platform. Traditional crop-spraying platforms include manned-aircraft crop-spraying, manual spraying and tractors,” says Mathekga.

Mathe weighs in on the importance of data-driven farming: “Data-driven farming practice speaks to a farming cycle that is more informed about its processes, how these processes interact with each other, and what the output is, depending on the inputs.

This comes naturally as each farmer knows with time what and what not to use, how crops respond to different inputs such as chemical treatments (pesticides, fungicides etc), and how much each field yields, amongst many other things.

“Traditionally all this knowledge is attained by the farmer through experience and deliberate measurement. It is safe to say therefore that the attainment, assimilation, synthesis, analysis and evaluation of this information (data) is done at a human scale and sometimes (many times!) the amount of data that a human can take in is limited. A good example where the latter assertion is true is when a farmer walks through his field to access the health of his crops by looking at the leaves. This is very feasible for a small farm, but if you scale up into hundreds of hectares, you need a machine, such as a drone, to quickly and efficiently scan the farm and analyze crop health with limited human interaction.

“The aforementioned addresses data acquisition and usefulness to address go/no-go decisions at that instant. The data can also be collected for a prolonged length of time, and what we hope for, is to start seeing correlations of inputs and outputs, and using our in-house developed AI algorithms we can help make better decisions based on past system performance. The ability to make decisions and acquire data is much enhanced using technologies such as AI and machine learning than the linear classical approach that a human being adopts.”

The same approach can also significantly enhance the resilience of a farming operation.

“The farmer doesn’t necessarily become resilient, but rather more informed and better equipped to tackle all the uncertainty,” says Mathe. “By definition, if our response time to an uncertainty decreases to close to zero days, and our response tactics are more informed, the density of the uncertainty is significantly decreased, and that is what we hope data-driven farming methods will do, on top of the improved yields per unit time per unit hectare per unit cost-of-production that we hope to achieve.”

The Gryphon Corporation’s innovation also comes with a data-acquisition package that collects data for specialised trend analysis to help make better farming decisions in the future. “The objective for this is to adopt robust, adaptive farming methods that are in sync with the uncertain weather patterns, natural farm inputs (such as pest attacks) and the required need for increased crop-yields across Africa.”

According to Mathe, the crop-spraying drone addresses the critical need to increase food security in the region.

“To do this, under uncertain climate conditions (among other drivers of farming failure or success), it is necessary that not only more efficient processes be adopted, but that robust and adaptive methods become part of the farming system.”

The autonomous crop-spraying drone, and the data-acquisition platforms address these requirements, and are one step of many in the direction of enhancing food security in the region.

“A first-principles analysis of most of our farms in Africa clearly shows a lack of infrastructure in general, and this has resulted in inefficient execution of many of the farming processes. This is not in sync with the heightened development in technology, engineering design, and the decreased cost of acquiring and deploying these. Through the right amount of synergy between technology and design, we can help leapfrog that lack of infrastructure with enhanced platforms such we are developing,” adds Mothekga.

The duo believe their innovation will be a significant player in the agricultural sector in Africa: “Besides the skills training that will come along with its application, it will see farmers spending significantly less money in the crop spraying process while at the same benefiting from the efficiency it adds.”

Mathe and Mothekga are no strangers to the world of agriculture. “Both Sam and I have farming backgrounds, and as we grew up we spent a significant amount of time at the farms doing menial work.

“As we grew in the knowledge and experience of engineering, we realized that there is a better and more efficient way of doing these menial tasks, and many of the other farming processes that we did growing up. Farming is something that is very close to our hearts, and we will endeavour to add as much value as we can through our company,” says Mathe.

“The drone was designed with small-scale farmers in mind, as they are the ones mainly affected by the lack of infrastructure, but scalability of the platform allows it to be deployed for medium- and large-scale farmers. We are still currently prototyping, and we hope that at the end of the pilot we will be having a platform that will used across the board,” he adds.

The innovation will play a role in improving food security in the region, and make African agricultural sector more attractive to investors.

“With about 10% of the people in Africa under-nourished, and 30% - 40% of children’s death attributed to malnutrition, the social need is critical, both in South Africa and in Africa as a whole,” says Mathe.

The Gryphon Corporation was a finalist in the 2018 SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards and received a seed grant of R200 000.

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