Growing agriculture with technology

Stimulating the innovation value chain


South Africa’s Bio-Economy Strategy aims to beneficiate South Africa’s natural biological resources by developing them into commercial products – and agriculture is foremost among these resources. However, as farmers well know, a range of inconvenient phenomena from finance to climate change place obstacles along the way. Fortunately, these obstacles can to a large extent be smoothed out by technological innovation.

Creating the conditions and providing the support for such innovation not only to take place but also to be commercialised on the market is the mandate of South Africa’s hard-working Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). Harvest SA spoke to Sibusiso Manana, Head of Agriculture Strategic Technology Area at the TIA, to find out more about how the agency’s activities pertain to the agricultural sector.

How far is SA from achieving “an inclusive agricultural economy that should create new direct and indirect jobs and to maintain a positive trade balance from primary and processed agricultural products”? What is the role of technology innovation in developing a globally competitive sector?

The South African agricultural economy is far from being inclusive. Participation in the agricultural economy is skewed largely towards established, commercial farmers. However there are plans and efforts through different government policy instruments towards achieving the desired inclusivity. Members of the small-holder farming community, which largely constitutes previously disadvantaged individuals, participate in the economy mainly on a subsistence scale. Their participation in the primary production is limited while their involvement in processing of agricultural fresh produce to high-value products is minimal or non-existent. The reason may be that of the huge capital that is required to equip them with the infrastructure required to set up processing facilities, which they struggle to secure through the current financial industry setup.

The other impediment for small-holder farmers is the fact that the market does not recognise them. Currently, small-scale farmers are never poised for growth, and are therefore forever locked in subsistence farming; they must just consume the produce as they do not have viable markets to sell their excess produce to. Therefore, as TIA, in our effort towards fulfilling our mandate, we continue to drive investment in technological developments and innovations that enable inclusivity in the agricultural economy and also encourage equitable value derivation for both commercial and subsistence farmers.

What is the purpose of the Agri Business Unit?

Let us start first with the mandate of TIA. As broadly explained, the Technology Innovation Agency was established by the state through an act of parliament in order to promote the development and exploitation, in the public interest, of discoveries, inventions, innovations and improvements.

The main objective of TIA is to support the state in stimulating and intensifying technological innovation in order to improve economic growth and the quality of life of all South Africans by developing and exploiting technological innovations.

TIA supports the realisation of the mandate by enabling the progression of ideas across the innovation value chain.

How TIA does all of this is by providing risk funding to innovators who are either individuals, science councils, or institutions of higher learning, etc, in order to enable them to develop, pilot, demonstrate and exploit these technological innovations.

We also support by funding the commercialisation of industry-enhancing technologies in cooperation with the broader stakeholders in the National System of Innovation, the NSI in short, in order to ensure seamless adoption and absorption of technologies to the market.

Last but not least, TIA also provides access to infrastructure that will enable innovators to develop new technologies.

It is in this context that the main goal of the Agriculture Unit of TIA is to invest in the development of new South African technologies, to increase agricultural productivity of both animal and plant produce in order to enhance the local agricultural industry’s competitiveness, and also contribute towards ensuring food security and poverty eradication.

The Agriculture Unit derives relevance, in the South African context, from the fact that we fund technology development and innovation in line with the Department of Science and Technology’s mandate that is tabled in the National Biotechnology Strategy, which has since been revised to the new Bio-Economy Strategy. The Bio-Economy Strategy emphasises the need for a far greater focus on the full innovation value-chain, that is to drive development from concept to commercialisation, effectively bridging the grand challenge of tech-development, which is the innovation chasm.

In what ways is the Business Unit supporting the creation of an enabling environment for agricultural technology innovation? What partners do you work with here?

Being an agency of the Department of Science and Technology, TIA operates within the National System of Innovation, the NSI, which is made up of various stakeholders, including higher education institutions, science councils (such as the CSIR, ARC, etc), industry bodies and entrepreneurs. The TIA Agriculture unit supports technology innovation in agriculture by investing through our funding instruments, namely the Technology Development Fund and the Pre-Commercialisation Fund.

TIA also has an instrument that funds development of its new project pipeline, which also cover all sectors including agriculture, which is the Seed Fund. Under this fund TIA works with other institutions such as universities and small business development agencies to fund new technological ideas.

How do you support the development and demonstration of attractive agricultural technology innovations, in terms of research, funding and commercialisation?

In addition to the funding instruments, TIA also supports technology innovation through non-financial instruments such as the Technology Stations and Technology Platforms that are hosted in Universities of Technology throughout the country. The Agrifood Technology Station at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology is one of the many examples of this support that TIA provides nationally.

TIA has entered into a number of structured relationships with other developmental finance institutions, such as the IDC, PIC, etc, in order to enable further funding towards commercialisation of the technology opportunities that have been successfully developed. Because of the risky nature of technology development, particularly in agriculture, funding participation of the private sector is still very limited.

The private sector’s interest has been observed largely from their taking up of these successfully developed technologies to benefit their businesses, and in some instances, we have seen the establishment of new enterprises because of the strength and value that these technology innovations offer in the market.

What are de-risked technologies and how do you facilitate their commercialization?

Despite the high risk associated with the role TIA plays in the development of technologies, TIA does enable the environment by providing funding in the technology development which then enables innovators to prove technology feasibility, viability and then the technology progresses towards commercialisation.

The de-risking process produces bankable technologies, products and processes by ensuring that at every stage of the development, the innovator has sight of the end goal, which is commercialisation, and can also quantify and cost the work put into the technology development at every stage using the technology readiness tracking model.

TIA also plays the role of enabler and connector where we connect our clients with those who can enhance their technologies and facilitate third party funds for technologies that are successfully developed.

Getting the right technology to small-scale and emerging farmers is very important. How do you achieve this and what lessons have been learnt in the process?

One first needs to acknowledge that, from a South African context, innovation improvements and benefits have not yet accrued to the small-scale farmer. There are several factors that may have influenced this, mainly that previously there have not been incentives for small-scale farmers to adopt or up-take new technologies in the agricultural sector. This point may relate to the previously mentioned inclusive economy issue. Small-scale and emerging farmers are still excluded from the economy and technology innovation mainly owing to lack of resources (capital and infrastructure), knowledge and skills.

There is however a desire within the NSI to expedite inclusive development of the agricultural economy to this end, and TIA is at the forefront of driving various inclusive technology-diffusion programmes. These technology-diffusion programmes are a deliberate effort to support sustainable adoption of technologies and foster broader economic participation so as to address the bottleneck of economic exclusion experienced particularly by small-scale farmers to date.

What projects are you working on in Breeding and Reproduction Technologies?

Currently, TIA has investments in the development of technologies towards wheat breeding for various disease resistance and abiotic conditions tolerance, drought tolerant maize production, etc. TIA has also invested towards the assisted reproductive technology programme, a technology that was aimed at addressing the low productivity challenge of rural cattle (emerging sector). There are many such technologies that TIA has invested into but these examples are just a few of out the agriculture portfolio of investments.

The latest thinking within the breeding and production technologies is that of looking for variants of plant and animal species that are drought tolerant, given the climate challenges the agricultural sector is facing. Previously technologies that were developed relied on the regularity of seasons and rainfall.

So, what would work are cost-effective innovations that will enable increased production of both animal and plant species to ensure food-security, in the context of climate-change. TIA has funded a number of such projects in this area of breeding and reproduction.

What are the latest developments in Animal Health and Nutrition?

Within the animal health and nutrition portfolio, there are investments in the development of dual vaccines, development of FMD diagnostics kits, point-of-care devices, etc, just to name a few. There are also developments towards developing nutraceuticals and feed supplements to enhance health and growth for broilers and poultry, developing alternative protein feed sources to fishmeal, and may more other technologies that we have invested into.

What is the latest thinking on Plant Health and Nutrition, from a technological perspective?

Within the plant health and nutrition portfolio, there are investments in the development of bio-fertilisers, adjuvants and bio-stimulants, etc. This is in support of a move towards a green economy that requires the reduction of the use of chemical fertilisers in both plant health and food production.

What is the importance of Post-Harvest Technologies and how are you supporting them?

TIA is looking for new post-harvest innovations and technologies to fund and support, as there is a vast scope for innovation in this area and the market is ripe for it. These technologies are vital to value creation and expansion of the agricultural economy and that is mainly in the context of technologies to increase production, overcome challenges and create new opportunities. Two main areas that are seeing innovation are the increase of shelf-life for fresh produce as well as processing for value addition.

Trends in this area are driven also by the lifestyle changes we see globally. There is a shift to ‘healthy living’ which has seen an increase in the demand for nutrient rich, and organically grown natural products and advent creation of a new “health food industry”.

In the same way, the market is looking for food that is quick to prepare, in light of the busy lifestyles we see today. There is therefore an opportunity for innovations in this area.

Is Conservation Agriculture on your radar?

Yes, we currently have two projects running in the Agri Bio-Economic Programme. One such project addresses preservation of biodiversity which contributes to conservation agriculture. The other is towards the development of a unique soil preparation method – towards conservation agriculture – that addresses the challenges of extensive use of mechanisation which can be detrimental to the soil structure.

With climate change, farmers and countries will have to gradually adapt. All regions, especially the heterogeneous and risky rainfed systems of Sub-Saharan Africa, need sustainable technologies that increase the productivity, stability, and resilience of production systems. These changes imply that technology for development must go well beyond just raising yields to saving water and energy, reducing risk, improving product quality, protecting the environment, and tailoring to gender differences.

Could you give some case studies of projects that have been supported successfully from inception to commercialization?

Two examples I can offer are MABU Soil Casings and AgriProtein.

MABU offers a sustainable and eco-friendly casing soil to the Southern African mushroom industry. A process has been developed whereby pith from sugarcane bagasse can be used as a substitute for imported peat in mushroom cultivation. TIA supported MABU with technology development funds for optimising the production process and validating the product on SA mushroom farms. The project broadened into expanded mushroom growing field trials. MABU created and continues to develop technology that is a world first for the international mushroom scene, but has recently added seedling- and plant growth mediums to their product range.

AgriProtein is leading a new industry called nutrient recycling. Using fly larvae fed on existing organic waste, AgriProtein has developed and tested a new large scale and sustainable source of natural protein.

In 2014, TIA committed funds to support the demonstration, market testing and validation of this technology. AgriProtein committed an equal amount as co-funding towards the same milestones. The company has now built its 2 500 tons per year commercial scale facility in Cape Town that will enable it to demonstrate the technology with the intent to start commercial roll out and licensing of the technology.

In closing, I would like to thank Harvest SA for the opportunity to reach your readership and share TIA’s work with your audience.

Sibusiso Manana – (031) 220 3100 or (012) 472 2700

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