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Farmers not waking up to agriculture-as-a-service



As the backbone of developing economies, agriculture not only serves to feed a nation but creates employment and, often, contributes significantly to the GDP. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 will require a 70% increase in overall food production, highlighting the need for increased, and more efficient, agricultural activities globally. Additionally, the FAO states that 80% of farmland in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is managed by smallholders working on 10 hectares or less.

According to Thomas Fuerst, WING Marketing at Nokia, while research clearly shows that technology can add tremendous value to South African farmers, the uptake has not been what it should be, particularly among subsistence and small-scale farmers. “This is likely due to the perceived costs associated with technology,” he says.  

The adoption of technology in agriculture also requires that various stakeholders work together. In a report done by the University of Stellenbosch for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, while agricultural technology will result in higher yields, reduced costs and improved nutritional value of foods, it needs the farming sector, government and education institutions to work together. “Crop disease, pests, and drought are some of the biggest issues facing agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Fuerst. According to CAB International crop pests and disease account for close to half of the total crop losses in developing countries and in a 2017 UN report, it was stated that about 200 000 people, mostly from developing countries, die every year from pesticide poisoning. “By using technology, and more particularly the Internet of Things (IoT), we can arm farmers with more detailed data about their farm as well as the macro environment to assist them in planning their crops more accurately and thereby driving a better yield, while eliminating risk,” he says.

Fuerst says there are three key challenges that need to be solved, the first of which is data availability and integrity. “The farmer has a small plot and can’t necessarily afford to buy different types of sensors to measure moisture, temperature or pests and put them on their small farm. Even if they could afford it, they need to know about weather and other conditions from a macro or wide area perspective, so that can predict what the impact of these will be on them in the future.”

The second challenge is what do they do with the data. They need tools that help them know what the weather is, what pests are coming, etc. and enable them to make decisions based on that information. The third challenge is the business model – it must be affordable for both the operator and the smaller farmers for it to be successful.

“If you look at developing economies, you don’t always have the large commercial farms that you find in developed countries. You have lots of smaller farmers who are working a small plot of land and operate in almost subsistence mode. That means that they have a limited budget available to spend on rolling out technology solutions, even if those will make their farms run more efficiently and save them costs. They require a solution that is packaged as an affordable ‘as-a-service’ package that will enable them to gather data to drive more intelligent decisions. This is where IoT comes into play,” he says.

Nokia’s Smart Agriculture-as-a-service solution runs on the Nokia Worldwide IoT Network Grid (WING), which is a global horizontal platform which allows telcos to notonly roll out IoT services more quickly on their network but gives them the flexibility to scale globally when they need to. “They don’t have to rely on the cost and complexity of things like roaming agreements that you have with traditional mobile phone services. It allows operators to roll out IoT services much quicker and scale their network much faster without investing huge amounts of CAPEX,” says Fuerst.  

Nokia works with the operator to roll out sensors that detect moisture, temperature, wind speed, and pests and deploy them across their whole network, not just in one province or town. “This way they are gathering data about the weather, pests and climate conditions across a far wider area and provide this data to the farmersas a service. There’s a smartphone, tablet or a computer application where they can access and leverage that data. It gives them access to data on weather conditions, pest trends, etc. and they can make smarter decisions about irrigation, applying pesticides, when to harvest or not and things like that. The farmer then also has the ability, if there’s some specific problem they have, they can send an SMS to an advisory centre and get advice on how to solve a specific problem.”

The operator, on the other hand, doesn’t have to invest a lot of CAPEX to roll out this IoT network and then put all these sensors on it – they can leverage WING to keep their costs low for the infrastructure and all they have to do is buy these sensors and put them across their network. Then they can access all that data and it can allow them, with minimal CAPEX, to now offering a service to their farmers at a low enough price so that the business model works for both parties.

Addressing the issue of future food requirements resides not in trying to find and develop new agricultural lands but in transforming current farms into more ’intelligent’ ones for sustainable agriculture.  “A successful smart agriculture program can be achieved through collaboration between the various stakeholders – technology providers, device manufacturers, platform providers, governmental entities, non-governmental organizations, agricultural cooperatives, agricultural companies, and farmers,” Fuerst concludes. “Critical to this, however, is finding the right business model, which works for both the farmer and the network operator.  The WING smart agriculture as-a-Service is unique in this regard because it allows farmers to benefit from IoT technology without the need to invest in it while giving the operator a pay-as-you-go business model that limits investment demands while offering a clear path to new revenues.”


Meet the ambassador to the future

Tilly Lockey, 14, lost her hands as a toddler, but sees it as a massive opportunity to embrace technology. She chatted with ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK about the human of tomorrow.



Picture by Arthur Goldstuck

It is a description that defines 14-year-old Tilly Lockey: She lost her hands at the age of 15 months, and now uses bionic hands to show the world how to overcome disability.

That could easily read as an advertisement for a prosthetics company, but Tilly refuses to be defined by marketing messages. She has not only embraced what is supposed to be a disability, but wants to become nothing less than an ambassador to the future.

Picture by Arthur Goldstuck

That is in effect what she is achieving by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with artificial hands. It means that, eventually, she will have more capabilities built into her body than most able-bodied humans can imagine. She collaborates closely with Open Bionics, a start-up that is using 3D printing to create low-cost prosthetics with high-tech capabilities.

“I have very high hopes for the future,” she said during a chat on the sidelines of the SingularityU Summit at Kyalami north of Johannesburg. From Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom, she was at the Summit as a guest speaker, chaperoned by her father Adam and sister Tia. 

“When I started working with Open Bionics, I wanted it to include lighting, music, Bluetooth, a projector in my palm, all over-optimistic things. But then I feel that is not too far away, and then a disability would turn into and enhancement of normal human hands. I’m really excited about it.

“I know there’s a couple of things they are working on right now, like trying to get the built-in battery thinner, because it’s hard to get overcoats and jackets over it, so they are trying to get the hands slimmer. They’re working on haptic feedback, to give a sense of touch of vibration, which tells me of I have a good grip on something. It could be coming soon. These hands I’m using now were made in the past five years. In another five years, I think we’ll have all of it.”

The hands in question are called Hero Arms, which its creators, Open Bionics, say is “the world’s first clinically approved 3D-printed bionic arm, with multi-grip functionality and empowering aesthetics”.

Click here to read more about the development of Open Bionics’s Hero Arms.

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How Tilly Lockey became a Hero

Part 2 of ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s interview with Tilly Lockey explores her amazing career.



Picture courtesy SingularityU South Africa 2019 Summit

This is the second part of this series of articles. To start from the beginning, click here.

Tilly Lockey was diagnosed with Meningococcal Septicaemia Strain B when she was 15 months old.

Her mother spotted the tell-tale signs one day in 2007: a fast-spreading skin rash that looks like pinpricks, along with symptoms like lethargy and bruising. She was rushed to hospital, but the bacterial poisoning spread so aggressively, doctors gave Tilley no chance of survival. They had to make a quick decision to amputate her hands to save her life.

Twelve years later, her future truly came into focus: “I was surprised with really cool Alita: Battle Angel bionic Hero Arms and went on the blue carpet at the world premiere of the movie with Rosa Salazar and director James Cameron.”

That pivotal moment in her life would not have been possible without the intensive efforts of her mother, Sara, to raise funds to buy something better than the metal prosthetics issued by the National Health Service in the UK. She increased Tilley’s profile with a campaign to “Give Tilley a Hand”, and today works as a fundraiser and events organiser for the Meningitis Now support group. Her involvement in an event meant she was unable to join Tilley on her trip to South Africa last week, when she spoke at the SingularityU Summit. After coming off stage, Tilley told us that Sara was her biggest inspiration in her life, and the closest to a role model.

“I’m usually a speaker at her events. I tell everyone my story and what I’m doing now and give these kids inspiration, because they often feel they can’t do anything because of what Meningitis did to them.

“I am home schooled now, which is pretty cool, because I’m able to have a career and get educated at the same time. I feel I can do a lot of things that friends can’t do. I can take a whole class on an aeroplane. I have a great time traveling and meeting so many inspiring people who are making a difference in the world.”

The form of Mengingitis that attacked her leaves hidden scars and issues that only become apparent years later. She is almost absurdly cheerful about the challenges that have faced her.

“I personally figured out that my left leg had stopped growing. I’m still finding out things it has caused, but you survive. At least I’m here and I’m alive.”

It does help that she’s comfortable in the spotlight, happy to give interviews, and eager to show what she can do with her bionic hands.

“I want to go into public speaking a lot more, and it could be an option as career. I want it to continue because it’s a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve got a story to share. If I can inspire people to change the world, I will. “

Her travels this year will still take her to Barcelona, Jakarta and New York. In the Big Apple, she will accept a humanitarian award, and intends “to give a funky speech”.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, she will take part in a fashion catwalk and do a makeup tutorial live. She learned to do makeup with one of her bionic hands when she fractured her right elbow in a fall at school

“I got makeup for Christmas and wanted to play with it, and got the idea of doing it with an open hand. It took a lot of perseverance and patience, but after studying how to do it, I was able to recreate a full makeup routine using one hand. It wasn’t a great situation at the time, but now I’m happy it happened because it got me into doing what I do now.”

What she is doing with makeup is remarkable in its own right. She gives tutorials on YouTube, where she says she is “kinda new”, as she has “only around 16,000 followers”. That may well soon expand into cooking videos.

In other words, everything is an opportunity: “I could be sad, just sit on my bed and cry, or I can live my life and realise what I’ve got: these amazing bionic Hero Arms.

“All I want to do is help give people confidence in themselves, accept who they are, accept their scars and everything about them. That they don’t have to impress everybody and just be themselves.”

Read more in the third article of the series about how family remains at the centre of Tilly’s life.

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