Microsoft launches tech project to tackle food security in SA, Africa

Microsoft recently launched FarmBeats, an agriculture research platform with the aim of making the benefits of using artificial intelligence available to farmers.

FarmBeats tracks soil temperature and moisture levels with the use of solar-based cloud computing models, taking the guess work out of farming.

By 2050 there will be 9.5bn people on the planet, yet the size of arable land is fixed, Mark Ihimoyan, director of business development at Microsoft in the Middle East and Africa, told Fin24 on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Africa Agri Indaba taking place in Cape Town.

"We foresee a pending food crisis. Things like climate change and global warming also make it a lot more challenging to get an effective yield from land in a sustainable manner. This indicates the need for us to grow more food on the existing land available," he explained.

"At Microsoft we feel that one of the ways to make a big impact in this regard is by using technology. There is an opportunity to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to help solve food security problems."

The idea is that AI can be used to augment farmers' existing knowledge so they can make more effective decisions and obtain an increased yield so that more food can be produced in a sustainable manner and at less cost.

In SA there are already small initial projects looking into providing connectivity on farms, which can sometimes be a challenge.

Asif Valley, national technology officer for Microsoft, tells Fin24 there is a large amount of data on a farm.

"We are at the Africa Agri Indaba to create awareness about the FarmBeats platform and to see if there are more partners who want to join us on this journey," he said.

"The interest we have seen so far has been very good. The feedback from farmers and agri tech providers are very positive."

Valley says there is a lot of innovation in the farming space, but it is happening in pockets.

"Someone, therefore, needs to bring it all together and that is where we believe we can play a role," he added.

"For example, during the drought in the Western Cape, with Day Zero looming, some farmers realised in some cases that during this period of water shortages they were actually getting more yields by watering less."

FarmBeats wants to increase this level of efficiency in farming so that it is no longer just about "guessing".

"Yes, farmers have experience, but it is not always just about that. Our data can indicate when to do what and the quantity of water needed," said Valley.

"The idea behind it is to have better yields and better crops."

There is an early phase pilot project in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) and in Limpopo where Microsoft is working with academia to make sure the platform fits the landscape so that the work can be accelerated.

"We have the security, resilience and ability to manage a level of data at scale and using AI to ensure there is no bias," said Valley.

* The Top Employer Institute has awarded Microsoft South Africa Top Employer status for 2020. Microsoft was named Top Employer across all industries and also the best ICT employer in South Africa at a gala dinner held in Johannesburg recently.