Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Agriculture could benefit from digital technology, such as blockchain, to provide product traceability, which is increasingly important for consumers, according to a new report.

The report by the University of Stellenbosch Business School recommends that agriculture engage consumers, who are becoming better informed about food safety, quality, the traceability of products and the use of chemicals.

The opportunity is for producers to market their brands, as consumers have an increasing influence on retailers to stock products that meet specific requirements and seek out niche products to purchase directly from producers, the report says.

The researchers recommend that producers turn to blockchain technology to provide verifiable information to track food origins.

Blockchain, or the distributed ledger system, has given rise to cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. The system uses independent computers to synchronise transactions online without the need for independent validation.

A research associate at the university, Angus Bowmaker-Falconer, said agriculture and agri-processing are strategically important sectors for the Western Cape because of their large absorption of unskilled labour and for their economic contribution, accounting for more than 10% of the regional economy, more than half of its exports, and 20% of SA’s agricultural output.

By adopting the smart and interconnected technologies of the new industrial era, agriculture in the Western Cape has the opportunity to reposition its brand by engaging consumers through digital platforms, attracting career entrants to high-tech jobs and becoming an investment proposition for smart technology applications, says Bowmaker-Falconer.

The "Agri Renaissance" scenario developed by the researchers sees agriculture embracing technology such as farm-management software, precision agriculture and predictive data analysis, enabling robotics and drone surveillance.

The Western Cape’s department of agriculture commissioned the report to gain a strategic outlook on the future for agriculture in the province in the context of the fourth industrial revolution, emerging technologies and innovations and the opportunities that these present for sustainable farming.

The report says tertiary institutions will need to strengthen their courses with the theory, skills and knowledge related to the fourth industrial revolution, which will in turn attract new students to the sector.

Bowmaker-Falconer said the government should develop the enabling conditions to support new entrants and smallholder farmers. This would include incubation and mentoring, education on technology, farming practices and business education, and access to finance.

He encouraged partnerships between large agri-businesses and small farmers that could support joint access to finance, markets and technology.

Smallholder farmers are advised to use concepts such as the sharing economy and crowdfunding to explore the pooling of resources and the creation of networks to strengthen their ability to produce at commercially viable scale, he said.