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How tech boosts farming

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With the current drought in South Africa, farmers need to find ways to properly manage their resources. IAN THEUNISSEN of Rectron believes e-agriculture, or the use of technology in the farming industry will help farmers get the results.

Ahmed Ibrahim Wakea Allah is a farmer in Sudan. By taking part in an e-agriculture project, he quadrupled his wheat yield in just one year and went from making a loss of 8000 Sudanese pounds in the 2013/14 season to a profit of 80 000 Sudanese pounds in 2014/15.  E-agriculture is an emerging field that sees agricultural services, technology dissemination, information and communication delivered or enhanced through the internet of things (IoT).

Combing farming and ICT yields positive results

Agriculture is strategically important in supporting the livelihoods of the majority of the rural population in Africa and closer to home in South Africa. The growth of e-agriculture has the potential to accelerate agriculture and rural development, promote food security and reduce rural poverty in developing markets.

While farmers and their machinery are still key for the agricultural industry, technology is starting to play a more significant role in uplifting communities. This goes beyond basic computer training to using ICT to improve sustainability, efficiency and profitability of small scale farming. ICT can facilitate relationship building with trusted suppliers of seeds and fertiliser; purchasing aggregation where multiple buyers can result in lower pricing; access to cultivation information and best practices; and an overall reduction in labour costs and wastage.

Ahmed experienced this first-hand when he took part in FieldLook Sudan. The project uses satellite imagery to improve water management and crop husbandry. Satellite images are used to provide information on crop growth, humidity and the nutrient needs of plants. Based on this, along with the current state of the farm, expected weather and the date of last irrigation, specialists send SMS messages to farmers’ phones informing them of the best time to irrigate, when to apply fertiliser and other crop husbandry advice. Ahmed and other farmers participating in the project now irrigate their crops more often, but use less water. They have all seen increases in their crop yields averaging 60%, and their confidence in using ICTs continues to grow.

Beyond this project, the 2015 eLearning Africa Report shows that ICTs are having a significant impact on the productivity and efficiency of the continent’s agriculture. A survey reports that 71% of farmers have used ICTs to improve their farming practices, with 90% saying ICTs are helping to improve food security and sustainability, as well as boost yields and improve income.

The need for partnerships to make it rain

However, an important caveat is that 60% of the same farmers questioned feel they do not have sufficient access to ICTs. The main barriers preventing a greater uptake of e-agriculture include issues around connectivity, bandwidth and electricity supply, as well as the high cost of equipment and services and lack of government support. What is needed is the buy-in and partnering of the public and private sector to scale projects like FieldLook Sudan so that they impact the large proportion of farmers on the continent. In South Africa, the government needs to realise the importance of e-agriculture and the IoT in the agricultural sector and upskill emergent farmers.

Global brands get their hands dirty

Companies like Intel are already on board with various e-agriculture initiatives globally. In India, a joint collaboration between the Grameen Trust and Intel, called Grameen Intel Social Business, is addressing low agricultural output, which impacts poverty and food security. In this initiative, support for e-agricultural programs includes productivity software, technological advice and training, community empowerment, ecosystem structures and building, training of entrepreneurs and capacity building for sustainable agriculture and rural development.

e-Agriculture on home soil

Closer to home, Ronin PFS is providing guidance and precision farming equipment in South Africa – just beginning to fill a gap in the ICT sector.

The Bredasdorp Agri Mega Week also recently showcased just how ICT is being used in the agricultural space. Motorola promoted its IRRInet irrigation syste, which makes use of a typical Motorola communication network for solenoid control. Sustainable food security was also a prominent topic, with e-agriculture touted as a solution to this issue.

Israel and New Zealand’s involvement in modern farming techniques was apparent at the Agri Mega Week, but South Africa and particularly the Western Cape is beginning to understand the significance of IoT in agriculture. The hope is that there will be a lot more local innovation at the next Agri Mega Week.

Cultivating solutions at the heart of the ICT sector

However, e-agriculture does tend to be overlooked as a viable and profitable sector and the result has been the development of in-house solutions as opposed to solutions coming from the ICT distribution sector. Intel is a great examples of the success of providing solutions at the heart of the ICT sector. The sector is, after all, at the centre of solutions like developing better weather mapping thanks to faster computers and more accurate data input; implementing wireless to help curb cable theft; and making use of solar energy and battery storage to circumvent power shortages. These are all building blocks in constructing workable e-agriculture solutions.

In this vein, the Rectron distribution model lends itself to e-agriculture with its green energy solutions, wireless and fixed line communication networking, security surveillance, Intel Next Unit Computing (NUC), the cloud, industrial computing and embedded systems. In addition, premium 3D printing brand in the stable, MakerBot, has the potential to assist in the prototyping and manufacturing of unique and industry-specific parts and tools.

Rectron is certainly evolving, seeing the importance of IoT in paving the way for areas including green energy solutions, industrial computing and of course e-agriculture. Most importantly, new partnerships now include many more market verticals than before, all connected through the common gateway of IoT.

Reaping the rewards

As agriculture makes up a large proportion of Africa’s GDP, boosting agricultural growth and sustainability is a priority – and ICTs have the potential to support agricultural development in poor countries by functioning as innovative solutions to agricultural challenges. Agriculture might be a relatively new area for the ICT sector to think about, but it is an important one. In fact, IoT and e-agriculture is no longer a luxury, but rather tantamount to every farmer’s profitability and existence.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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