Over the last 30 years farming has become much more technical. The need to feed has of course exacerbated demands for higher crop yields and has spawned a whole new industry based around precision farming. At the forefront of this revolution has been Technifarm, a small, industry-leading business, operating out of the Western Cape.
Technifarm curiously came about as the result of a switch of career by Lourens Enslin, who had previously worked in computer science – the irony is that the wheel has come full circle and precision farming very much uses computer science these days, as the Managing Director explains:
“I worked in computer science but then in 1994 when our new government came to power we had a period of affirmative action and I was offered the choice of early retirement or replenishment and the opportunity to learn a new skill.
“I decided to move into precision farming and around the same time decided to move from Johannesburg to the Western Cape, which had always been a dream of mine. So we launched Technifarm in 1999, a friend and I, and then in 2001 we formed a joint venture with a local co-operative and re-launched the business.”
Their timing was exquisite. At that time precision farming was just taking off in the Western Cape region, but farmers were acutely aware of the problems associated with drought and were under enormous pressure to produce good yields on their crops. As Enslin puts it, “There was an opportunity and a need.”
“Precision farming is our core business,” he explains, “we realised that the farmers plant seeds and then applies a standard rate of fertilizer across a field. But if you take soil samples from different positions within a field, put the details into a database and send samples off to a laboratory for analysis, you learn that the nutrient levels (such as phosphate and lime) and the requirements will be different from point to point.
“Which begs the question why would you apply the same amount of fertilizer at every point in a field? With GPS coordinates you can identify the nutrient needs for every part of a field precisely and go back and apply the right amount of fertilizer.
“Of course that improves efficiency and gives the farmer a cost saving, but the real benefit is not to save, rather to get a good average over the field and increase the yield.”
Enslin says that the partnership route has proved hugely successful for Technifarm, and has opened up doors of opportunity which have converted the company into a national business, as opposed to regional. That in turn has had its benefits, helping to eliminating obvious cash flow constraints caused by seasonality:
“We are headquartered in Swellendam, but have a couple of regional offices too. Our original partners SSK Co-operative owns 50 per cent of the business, whilst I own 10 per cent; the balance is owned by Profert Holdings, who came on board three years ago.
“The involvement of Profert has been very good for the business as we have seen a marked increase in competition in recent times. However we have an advantage in that Profert, as a fertilizer business, brings clients to our doorstep. There is an excellent synergy between us and both of our partner companies.
“We also differ from our competitors because we try to service as many different steps in the precision farming process as possible, including: soil classification, soil sampling, recommendations, yield monitoring, aerial monitoring and selling equipment. At present, most of our rivals only offer a couple of these services.
“Because Profert operates across the country, we have been able to increase our own footprint, which does bring logistical challenges, but has also increased our potential and helped us to grow the business.
“Before the partnership, seasonality was a problem because the Western Cape is a winter rainfall area and out of season, there was very little for us to do. In 2009 however we started to work in the NorthernProvince, where they have a summer rainfall season, meaning we have been able to work throughout the year and smooth out any cash flow concerns.”
On the downside, expanding across South Africa during tough economic times, has given Technifarm a bigger debtor challenge when it comes to chasing in bills. Enslin says that the sheer size of the country can make it tough for a small company, while laboratory fees and logistics can also provide financial pressures.
“Our primary overhead however is salaries,” he confirms, “but you have to remember that all of the samples are sent to a laboratory (sometimes as far away as the USA) and there can be a pick-up truck load of samples. It can be difficult to get our people, equipment and vehicles to remote farms and our staff have to be tough to endure the merciless sun when they are working out in the fields.”
Despite the operational hazards, Enslin is delighted with the progress that Technifarm continues to make, and spends much of his time in aircraft, surveying farmlands and visiting branch offices.
Of course keeping up to date with the latest advancements in science is a pre-requisite for any precision farming company, but again, Enslin says that Profert has proved an invaluable source of information:
“Our benefit is that we are able to make use of their agronomists. I do however get the feeling that there has been a period of stagnation for precision farming over the last three to five years, although the monitoring of crops has advanced.
“We are certainly looking forward to new opportunities though and moisture management and monitoring may offer a new line of business for us in the future. We can currently monitor yields and we carry out aerial images over the fields, but we don’t yet have a process for monitoring moisture content or pest issues. We are now working on a small pilot project and this is definitely an area of possible growth for Technifarm in the future,” he affirms.
That future, appears likely to further embrace Enslin’s own past, as technology increasingly comes to the fore:
“Our main equipment now involves computers with a GPS system and we are becoming an IT-driven company,” he admits. “Earlier today I was in a plane, taking photographs of a vineyard, we can now download those images and they can be processed over the weekend anywhere in the world. That is the power of the web.
“Our partnership with Profert has been very good for Technifarm and we have seen our client base, turnover and the number of hectares processed more than double. I still feel however that we haven’t yet achieved our full potential and I am very excited about the future.
“My priority for the year ahead is to get the programme model implemented for Profert, which will better link agents and clients together; the technology involved means that the agent will have all the necessary information to hand on his I-Pad when he visits a client.”