What the heck is agritech?

What is agritech?

Agritech has been one of the buzz-words around internet forums and the business world. But what is the big fuss? What does agritech actually mean? It seems the word embodies quite a lot of things, but its definition is quite simple: any technology that improves efficiency (yield and quality) and profitability for farmers. The end goal is to produce more food, cheaper, faster and healthier.

Why is it important?

The buzz now makes sense. The world population is growing, and people are hungry. According to the UN, the world population is expected to grow from 7,7 billion in 2019 to 9,9 billion in 2050. On the authority of Population Action International, “Almost one in seven people around the world are chronically hungry, lacking enough food to be healthy and lead active lives”.

The challenge.

My challenge is this: the field of agritech seems like a rabbit hole, and I’m getting lost in all the different tunnels. Drones are flying over orchards. Sensors are capturing soil moisture. Data is being captured and analysed from tractors and implements. Productivity measures are being set up and managed. There are so many apps being launched. ERP software, specifically for agriculture, is being launched. Business intelligence tools are being advertised… And on and on. Is it only me feeling confused?

I will be writing some follow-up articles breaking down agritech into more manageable bites to assist farmers and other curious people like myself in making sense of agritech. Hopefully, this will answer the following question: where we should be focusing in order to maximise the cost-benefit to really produce more food, cheaper faster and healthier.

A Jumping Robot – perhaps a leap forward from a drone?

CropHopper is a jumping robot that operates autonomously. Jumping up to 10 m per point, (for 10 m x 10 m grid boxes) it stops and takes 12 m² high- resolution images. In the future it will also be able to apply spot sprays and it has already killed weeds with a rotary hoe. – Photos: CropHopper

Read this Future Farming article to find out more.

Credit to Mick Roberts – Freelance journalist and www.futurefarming.com.

How to choose the right ERP partners and software

One article cannot cover all there is to know about ERP implementations, but I would like to highlight some of the important lessons about choosing the right partners and the right software that myself and others have learned through experience.

Choose the right partners

Eric Kimberling, a respected ERP implementer who sometimes serves as an expert witness in high profile court cases for failed ERP projects, had this to say in April 2016: “The “people” side of the project will make or break your project.”

This choice is almost as important as choosing the right spouse – its a longterm commitment. A typical ERP implementation takes months or possibly more than a year depending on the size of your business. You are going to see a lot of each other and you want it to be partners with a shared vision and similar values. Depending on the scope of the implementation there would be one or more partner involved throughout the implementation:

  • The project manager: The first partner that I would recommend in this process is an implementation project manager. I have had the privilege of working with the South African company, IPlan, on two different occasions and I would never approach an ERP implementation without the help and assistance of another party that has been through the process before. The fact is that as humans we learn through experience. As a business owner and manager, if you are lucky you will be involved in one ERP software implementation. So, partner with a consultant that does these kinds of implementations continuously. Questions to ask:
  1. What implementation methodology do they use? Implementation methodology warrants a whole article on its own.
  2. How would they define the role that they could play during the implementation? This could include project management, the training plan, assistance with the change management plan and a quality assurance role. 
  • The software partner: This would be the local company licensed to sell and implement the software. Questions to ask:
  1. Do they have enough resources to be able to implement in the time-frame given?
  2. How many similar implementations have they done in your business industry? Go and visit one or more successful implementation sites and ask what this partner was like during those implementations.
  3. Ask yourself if they seem honest and trustworthy. You want a software partner that will tell you what the software can and cannot do. If they try to convince you that the ERP software will also be able to make your cappuccinos, it is not the right partner. All ERP software has limitations – be sure to ask what the limitations are.
  4. What would their role be in terms of support after the implementation? 
  5. Do they have a helpdesk or call centre during and after business hours and how are support queries managed? Will there be additional charges for support post-implementation?
  • A hardware partner: A hardware partner will not always be required, but if you need hardware such as bar-code scanners, you may need another partner to give you the best advice about that. This could be your existing IT hardware service provider in town since they may be able to help sort out issues after implementation.
  • A training partner: You may want to take your staff off-site for some of the training in which case you may need another training location.

Finding the right ERP software for your business needs

Choosing a software product is hard. It is an investment decision. You will invest in time, yours and your employees, and money, not only for the software but also the cost of failure if you make the wrong choice. 

Here you can once again turn to the professionals. Companies with ERP implementation experience, like IPlan, know that one product does not fit all. You can use a partner like IPlan or an internal dedicated project manager to do the following:

  • Step 1: Draw up system requirements: Map out your system and the requirements that you will have for ERP software. A very clear picture is needed of what problems and issues the software needs to fix for the business – what is your current pain points? Involve all executive managers in this process to ensure buy-in from the start.
  • Step 2: Request for Information Phase (RFI): Send out correspondence to possible software providers to send you information about their product.
  • Step 3: Request for Proposal phase (RFP): Choose the ERP software providers that responded to the RFI and match your requirements in broad terms. Ask them to respond to a request for proposal. If they are interested, provide them with your needs and requirement specifications. Allow them to submit a proposal to you about how their software fulfills those requirements. 
  • Step 4: Selection phase: From the proposals received, create a shortlist of the software for which you would like to see a demonstration (demo). Arrange demos within a short period (one week) and involve all executive managers in your business in these sessions. Take a decision on which software, as well as a partner, would work best for the business.

Choosing the right software can take two to six months. If you give the process too little time, you could limit your options and make the wrong choice.

Keep in eye out for my next articles on ERP implementation.

What is CRM? Customer Relationship Management

Definition – CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. Specific software solutions for CRM provides tools that organises contact information , correspondence and open cases with customers that needs to be addressed.

CRM is not often used by farming businesses in the fruit sector since it would rather be the marketing and sales companies that works between the farmer and customers that would make use of a CRM tool.

What is a Tensiometer?

Source: Salina Valley Agriculture

Definition – A tensiometer measure soil moisture in units of negative pressure also known as tension.

Tension is a measure of the force that plant roots need to exert to pull water from the soil pores.  Large pores hold water with less force than small pores.  As plants extract moisture from the soil, water is first taken up from the largest pores.  As the soil dries roots need to exert more force to pull water from the smaller pores.  Hence, high tension values mean that the soil is becoming dry.

How do tensiometers work? Tensiometers are filled with water (preferably distilled) that has been degassed by boiling it.  A key component of the tensiometer is a porous ceramic cup which allows water in the shaft of the tensiometer to freely pass into the soil without air bleeding though the small pores in the cup (Fig. 1).  If the soil is not saturated, water will move from inside the cup into the unfilled soil pores.  Because air cannot replace the space vacated by the exiting water, a vacuum develops in the shaft of the tensiometer that can be measured with an accurate gauge.  Water will stop migrating from inside the tensiometer cup into the soil when the internal vacuum pressure of the tensiometer equals the soil tension, or the force needed to pull water from the soil pores.   The vacuum gauge measures tension in units of kPa or cbars, which are equivalent (1 kPa = 1 cbar).

At tensions less than 80 kPa water can freely move through the small pores in the ceramic cup without air entering into the tensiometer
Figure 1. At tensions less than 80 kPa water can freely move through the small pores in the ceramic cup without air entering into the tensiometer.

Interpretation of tension readings Because the tension value provides a sense of how much energy a plant would need to exert to suck water from the soil, tensiometer readings can be easily related to water stress in crops.  At high tension values a plant experiences more water stress and growth slows.   In addition, a tension reading has a similar meaning in terms of water stress whether the soil has a sandy, clay or loam texture. 

Reliability of tensiometers The one Achilles’ heal or weakness of the tensiometer is that if any air leaks into the instrument it will not retain a vacuum and the readings will be unreliable.   There are several brands of commercial tensiometers available.   Some are relatively inexpensive and simple to use, and others are more complex and can be interfaced with dataloggers to provide continuous readings throughout the day. Based on our experience, some of the most popular commercially available tensiometers often leak air and loses vacuum pressure, and in many cases the gauges do not provide accurate readings or are not durable.   The loss of vacuum pressure means that the tensiometers need to be frequently refilled with degassed water.  Also, irrigators may mistake a low reading to indicate that a crop has adequate moisture when in reality the soil may be dry.

Components needed to build a tensiometer: a. ceramic cup, b. ½ inch PVC pipe for shafts, c. PVC “T”, d. vacuum gauge, and e. rubber stopper.

Figure 2. Components needed to build a tensiometer:
a. ceramic cup, b. ½ inch PVC pipe for shafts, c. PVC “T”, d. vacuum gauge, and e. rubber stopper.

What is the difference between Business Intelligence, Big Data and Data Science?

Big data, Industry 4.0, Data Science: Those are just a few buzzwords that are used in the business world when talking about information and reporting on it. The agriculture industry is no exception since the Internet of Things allows farmers to collect data at an incredible speed.

Nevertheless, let us look at some detailed explanations of a few of the related phrases:

Business Intelligence

Definition – Business Intelligence is all about being able to collect and react to relevant information from the business environment, whether internal or external. The challenges lie in identifying which information could lead to a strategic advantage if it is reacted to in a timely fashion and in being able to interpret information to support taking the correct action.

Business intelligence tools include reports, graphs and charts often presented as dashboards. These tools can only transpire into strategic advantages if care and diligence were taken when selecting the information to be presented and not “reporting for the sake of reporting”.

Software that is used for business intelligence could, for example, be:

InsightSquared Sales Analytics, Klipfolio, ThoughtSpot, Cyfe, TIBCO Spotfire, Alteryx Platform, Domo, Looker, Sisense, Microsoft Power BI, Tableau Desktop, TIBCO Jaspersoft, Tableau Online, Microsoft BI, Google Charts, and Oracle Analytics Cloud (Source)

Big Data

Definition – Big data usually refers to data sets with sizes beyond the ability of commonly used software tools to capture, store, manage, and process data within a reasonable time and value.

The following characteristics can describe big data:

  • Volume: The quantity of generated and stored data. The size of the data determines the value and potential insight, and whether it can be considered big data or not.
  • Variety: The type and nature of the data. This helps people who analyze it to use the resulting insight effectively. Big data draws from text, images, audio, video and completes missing pieces through data fusion.
  • Velocity: The speed at which the data is generated and processed to meet the demands and challenges that lie in the path of growth and development. Big data is often available in real-time. Big data are produced more continuously. Two kinds of velocity related to big data are the frequency of generation and the frequency of handling, recording, and publishing.
  • Veracity: It is the extended definition for big data, which refers to the data quality and the data value. The data quality of captured data can vary greatly, affecting accurate analysis.
  • Exhaustive: Whether the entire system is captured or recorded or not.Fine-grained and uniquely lexical
  • Respectively: the proportion of specific data of each element per element collected and if the element and its characteristics are properly indexed or identified.
  • Relational: If the data collected contains commons fields that would enable a conjoining, or meta-analysis, of different data sets.
  • Extensional: If new fields in each element of the data collected can be added or changed easily.
  • Scalability: If the size of the data can expand rapidly.
  • Value: The utility that can be extracted from the data.
  • Variability: It refers to data whose value or other characteristics are shifting to the context they are being generated. (Source: Wikipedia)

Data Science

Definition – Data science is an interdisciplinary field focused on extracting knowledge from data sets, which are typically extensive (Big data). The field encompasses analysis, preparing data for analysis, and presenting findings to inform high-level decisions in an organization. As such, it incorporates skills from computer science, mathematics, statistics, information visualization, graphic design, and business.

As such data science is a career option that could be very rewarding for individuals interested in mathematics, data and making sense of the information around us.

What is Machine Learning?

Definition – Machine learning is when a computer uses algorithms and statistical models to learn how to perform a specific task without using direct instructions relying on patterns and deduction in stead. A set of training data is provided and the software develops its own algorithm, rather than a programmer that provides every step of the algorithm.

Machine learning is a subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Well known techniques used in machine learning includes:

  • Supervised machine learning :- The computer is provided with example inputs and the required outputs. The goal is for the computer to work out the algorithm
  • Unsupervised machine learning :- Only inputs are given and the computer has to find its own patterns in the data.
  • Re-enforced machine learning :- A computer program cooperates with an environment in which it must perform a certain task (such as driving a vehicle or playing a game against an opponent). As it solves its problem, the program is provided feedback that is comparable to rewards, which it tries to extend.

Examples of thhe application of machine learning in agriculture would be the following:

  • A rover or drone takes pictures of fruit on trees in an orchard and provides a crop estimate based on the pictures taken. This will use supervised learning as the software will be taught how to identify fruit and measure them based and programmed parameters.
  • Pictures of fly traps identify the types of flies and the instances, warning the farmer of pest control issues. Also supervised learning, as the software will be taught how to identify insects based and programmed parameters.
  • Animal welfare classifiers can connect the chewing signals of livestock to a need to change the diet of the animal. By their movement patterns, including standing, moving, feeding, and drinking, they can tell the amount of stress the animal is exposed to and predict its susceptibility to diseases, weight gain and production.

Trends for the next decade

The future is suddenly much more unpredictable. COVID19 has thrown the world into a spin in a direction that no one could have predicted in 2019. 

On Wednesday, 15 April, I was fortunate enough to attended a webinar hosted by the Stellenbosch Network and the Launchlab, entrepreneurship incubator at the University of Stellenbosch. The theme:  Innovation in Africa: Challenges, Trends, and Outlook. The University of Stellenbosch Professor and Head of Future Studies, Prof. André Roux, gave his view on the future trends for business in Africa. Josh Romisher, CEO of the Launchlab, discussed the future of innovation and technology in Africa.

According to Prof. André Roux, Africa has a few factors in its favour: The population of Africa is young, growing, moving and getting more prosperous. He sums up the trends for business in Africa with the acronym FORESIGHT:

  1. Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Fourth Industrial Revolution will continue with more momentum throughout the next decade. The African Continent has its challenges with infrastructure that has a considerable impact on the implementation of technology. It just means that tech solutions look different for Africa than it may in the developed world.
  2. Oriental: What happens in China affects the rest of the world. In 2009 the number of middle-income consumers in Asia was projected to grow by 614% from 525 million in 2009 to 3228 million in 2030. This growth in comparison with the USA and Europe with almost no growth projected. The rise in the number of consumers in Asia will mean a staggering need for food and other resources, of which much will be sourced from Africa. 
  3. Rewriting the Economic Paradigm: COVID19 ensured a severe revision of the script for this decade. This week published IMF growth outlook for the world for 2020 shows a contraction of 3%. The world economy is facing a recession that would be more severe than the great depression, although it will hopefully recover faster than it did then.
  4. Empowerment of individuals: Almost 90% of primary school-aged girls are in school. Literacy levels in Africa have improved, and access to communication is increasing daily.
  5. Saturation: Natural resources are running out because the numbers of consumers are growing. The challenge of surviving prosperity.
  6. Inequitable /divided world: Poverty internationally has decreased, but Africa is still the exception
  7. Grey: The rest of the world is ageing, but Africa has a young population. This trend could be in Africa’s favour since more and more people are getting to be economically active.
  8. Hotter and dryer: Although Africa is least responsible for global warming, ironically Africa will be affected to a more significant extent than other continents.
  9. Tele-everything: Everybody has a cell phone. Mobile money, e-libraries, and online learning provide opportunities.

Prof Roux feels that the two biggest challenges for Africa remain:

  1. Developing legitimate and effective leadership and governance and
  2. Generating sufficient and appropriate skills.

Josh talks about “What is innovation?” He divines innovation as “earned insight”. It is hard to innovate. Innovation is earned, over the course of time, as insight is gained. It takes thousands of hours to make a product scalable, affordable and workable. 

The other important piece of the puzzle is ACTION. Josh does not see research such as publications, citations and patent applications as innovation. It only becomes innovation as the process of application turns those insights into action.

The challenge in Africa 

  1. Infrastructure is non-existent meaning that the whole supply chain needs to be implemented and resolved. The fact that every person has a cellphone means the solutions for Africa is different than for the rest of the world.
  2. Coordination of diverse stakeholders requires strong leadership.
  3. Funding models are different for Africa. Risk is high, so investors are looking for high returns. The runway is much longer, so entrepreneurs need stamina.

Josh sees the following trends for Africa:

  1. Fintech gets funded most in Africa. Fintech businesses do not require the same infrastructure and support which other investments may require.
  2. Public-private partnerships. The private sector will step in to provide services that governments in developing countries offer. 
  3. Solution sets of possible private partners for Africa: World-shapers are trying to work with Africa.
  4. The democratisation of entrepreneurship: more information is freely available online – you don’t need to obtain a qualification to be a successful entrepreneur

Where is innovation most needed? “Disruption has turned into a distraction. Valuation has overtaken values. Give the youth of South Africa a taste of entrepreneurship. “

What is the new normal? Not a v-shaped recovery. What do we need to do to sustain the planet? Josh motivates us to use this time in lockdown to decide what we think the new normal should look like.

Thank you to the Launchlab and the University of Stellenbosch for the opportunity they provided by hosting the webinar.

Office 365 now becomes Microsoft 365

On 21 April 2020, Office 365 will become Microsoft 365 Apps. According to Microsoft’s announcement, it will mean the same software at the same price but with more benefits.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Seamlessly connect your financial accounts using Money in Excel to view, manage, and gain insights about your personal finances—all in one place.
  • Get intelligent writing assistance in your documents, emails, websites, and more with Microsoft Editor.
  • Access a growing catalogue of premium templates, fonts, and photos to create high-quality personalized content.

What is the difference between Office 365 and Office 2019?

Historically Microsoft Office was sold as a software package that was bought and installed with every new computer. The big challenge in companies was the compatibility of files between the different versions of Office as users shared them. In 2013, Microsoft released Office 365 as a subscription-based model, also known as software as a service (SaaS).

It is my personal experience that there are still many IT users in business that do not understand the difference between the two models. Here are the differences:

Microsoft promotes Office 365 as the primary means of purchasing Microsoft Office. There are still major releases roughly every three years (last one in 2019). Office 365 revenue overtook traditional license sales for Office in 2017.

What is Onedrive?

Microsoft OneDrive is the Microsoft App that allows you to save files in the cloud. It is online file storage that compares with DropBox and Google Drive. OneDrive comes with Office 365 (soon to be Microsoft 365 Apps) and allows for 1 TB of storage included in the subscription price.

What is Sharepoint and how does it compare to OneDrive?

Microsoft SharePoint is also online file storage that can be used as a secure place to store, organize, share, and access information from any device. It comes with the Business Premium and Business Essentials subscriptions.

The following description to compare OneDrive and SharePoint which I have read before makes the most sense to me: OneDrive is like having a file cabinet in your office. People can come in and look at the files in the cabinet when you allow them to, but it remains your filing cabinet. SharePoint is like having a walk-in safe with filing cabinets where everybody in the business can access them – they may still need keys to the safe and perhaps keys to specific cabinets, but it’s central.

The above was just some of the issues that I had to get grips on on my journey to get more tech savvy. I hope it helps someone else who are still struggling with the different concepts.

Useful links:

The latest in Two-Way Radio Technology

As a product review, two-way radios seem a bit off-topic, but the right product came across my path, and I thought: “I could just as well write about it. My audience would be interested in it. Hand radios are being used on many farms, and I am not sure everybody knows about the newer technology that is available.”

PTT over Cellular Network (PoC) explained

Two-way radios with PPT (Press-to-talk) over cellular technology is simply two-way radios working with cellular data sim cards. 

Watch this video for an explanation of Push-toTalk

This technology is not going to increase your farm’s production yield or product quality. However, it will make securing your product and improving your production team’s communication a lot easier for the same price at which you would have spent on old technology.

Security remains one of the biggest concerns for South African farmers. The safety of farmers and their workers, as well as anti-theft campaigns, could be improved significantly by using PTT over cellular. Changing the existing two-way radios to use cellular technology achieves two-way communication on existing cellular network infrastructure, significantly reducing the limits on geographical coverage. 

The main difference between a regular cellular call and a PTT call is that users connect faster due to the one on one relationship that gets configured by the service provider. Multiple parties could be included in a conversation like professional radio usage.

The disadvantage of PoC technology is that it relies on the cellular networks. It would therefore only be an option on farms with good cellular coverage. Having Wi-Fi points and signal boosters on different points on a farm would assist with this problem.

PoC allows for tracking of the radios on Maps by using cell phone network triangulation and GPS. Combined with the dispatcher software this is a powerful tool for security management. 

Newer technology and South African software and servers have made the use of PoC much more reliable as users can now access the dispatcher software from any internet connection even cellular phones. Each radio has a panic button – when pressed the radio signals the control room and starts recording. The control room can listen in to what is happening to respond appropriately, and the recording is available for legal purposes if required.

iPTT Africa

Marthinus Coetzee – CEO iPTT Africa

The specific supplier that I interviewed is Marthinus Coetzee from iPTT Africa. Based in Gauteng they supply throughout South Africa and Africa. They have successfully tested globally from China to Togo. iPTT Africa offers a service that supplies the radios as well as the internet based dispatcher software.

Different groups can be set up on different channels, for example, a security group and supervisor group, allowing for up to 16 groups. The group and radio information get programmed over the air, so there is no need to bring the radio into the office.

The dispatcher software also offers geo-fencing, alerting the control room when a radio leaves a site. The control room can also monitor the route, speed and location of vehicles.  The iPTT data system roams seamlessly across cellular networks offering continental coverage, GPS tracking, voice dispatch and call recording. All this information is stored on the iPTT servers for at least three months, allowing for easy retrieval.

The software is ideal for all control rooms that need to be in contact 24/7 with their staff and sites. Unlike conventional two-way radios, iPTT radios are not limited in coverage geographically and need no repeaters and base stations.

iPTT Africa also has an app (available on the Google Play store), which allows for a smartphone to be part of the two-way network on the farm. The app must be open in the background of the phone for it to work. Calls can be made from the software on a computer as well.

Tracking recordings provided by iPTT Africa comes in the form of video footage of the movement of a specific radio on a map.

Cost Analysis of PoC Technology

The hardware cost ranges between R1 800 and R2 500 per hand radio and a bit more for the base station radio depending on the brand of radio chosen. iPTT Africa prefers Kirisun and supplies three models: the iTalk 200, iTalk 220 and iTalk 450:

The iTalk 220 has a keypad and would typically be carried by a supervisor that needs to make calls to individual guards that carries the iTalk 200. The iTalk 450 would be used in a vehicle or a control room. The control room could also use a computer with a large screen, microphone and speakers together with the iTalk web application

iPTT Africa currently charges R165 per radio per month for unlimited talk time, national coverage and dispatcher software.

An additional R130 adds guard patrol, which means an SMS gets send to the server at specific GPS points and every morning the client receives his reports via email.

The iPTT Africa phone app costs R100 per month but uses your own data.

Marthinus helps his clients to set up the software, trains them and provides support on the software if the client struggles with changes later.

Recordings can be retrieved from the system when needed.

Case Study

Multiple security companies in South Africa, make use of PoC radio technology from the iPTT Africa platform. Various companies have a shared channel that is used in a community effort to prevent crime.

Nationally the community watch has had successes in catching criminals after robberies by coordinating the GPS locations of all the radio units of the different security companies on a shared map. By communicating with the larger group, the criminals can be trapped successfully.

Another case study includes agricultural suppliers in the Grabouw area. By using iPTT Africa Radios they seamlessly report back to their offices on soil monsters, fertilizer and seed orders when visiting farms.

What says the Rural Meerkat burrow-meter?

This technology does not rate high on the Rural Meerkat burrow-meter because it will only affect an increase in product yield as far as it stops theft of the product.

In spite thereof, the technology has many additional benefits above the old technology which includes:

  • improved geographical coverage;
  • recording of conversations for later use;
  • software showing GPS locations and tracking of movements of the radios;
  • panic button functionality;
  • recorded tracking functionality.

For a rather small investment, PoC gives much value above the older technology.

These avocado farmers are open to innovation and technology

I have just done my first tech customer interview with Edrean Ernst from Allesbeste Boerdery and what an incredible conversation it was. Driving on the R71, at the foot of the beautiful Magoebaskloof pass near Tzaneen, you will find Allesbeste Boerdery on your left.

The Allesbeste Boerdery History

Adalbert H. Ernst, a British national who immigrated from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), founded Allesbeste Boerdery in 1927 when he bought the farm on which Allesbeste’s head office and avocado nursery are situated.

In 1980, when André joined his father on the family farm, Allesbeste was well placed to take advantage of the upswing in avocado production. With a degree in horticulture, André went on to obtain a DSc(Agric).

He began increasing the number of avocado orchards on the farm. He purchased four additional farms between 1995 and 2013, adding a further 225ha to Allesbeste Boerdery, thereby spreading his risk across different geographical areas. He started to experiment with different cultivars in the Allesbeste nursery, and his trials soon paid off when he developed the new Maluma cultivar.

André, and his two sons, Zander and Edrean

Allesbeste Boerdery is now managed by André, his wife, two sons, Zander and Edrean and a whole team of people. The business has 230ha of avocado orchards, 26ha of banana plantations, 70ha of eucalyptus trees, a nursery producing 200 000 trees a year, and a farm stall. The family also owns shares in Afrupro, an export company run on a co-op basis, as well as shares in Letaba packhouse, also owned by a group of farmers.

The use of Technology at Allesbeste

From my discussion with Edrean Ernst, it is clear that all the Ernst’s have a keen interest in technology and using it for innovation in their business is encouraged amongst their employees. My interactions with the Ernsts has made me rethink my definition of Agritech. They are innovative, not only when it comes to technology, but are at the forefront of experimenting with various avocado rootstocks and cultivars, trying out new production techniques such as trellising in the orchards and working with laboratories in Australia to do genome testing on different cultivars.

In the eighties, Andre Ernst bought a PC (Personal computer) within the first three years after PCs became available on the market to be able to do his books on it. Even as a pre-schooler Edrean immediately showed in interest.

Edrean Ernst is responsible for all the IT systems at Allesbeste. Edrean taught himself to code in Pascal from a very early age and later on in Delphi (object orientated programming). In more recent years, his team started using Angular, a JavaScript framework for web and mobile applications and React, a declarative, dynamic, and flexible JavaScript library for building user interfaces.

Allesbeste has developed its own in-house integrated farming systems that incorporate all the different software systems with its ERP program, Acumatica. The company has two full-time developers working with Edrean, one specialising in the back end development and the other on front end development and the user interface.

Over time the team at Allesbeste has been moving from software instances on their server to web-based software. Edrean also uses Flutter for mobile applications. Flutter is an open-source software development kit created by Google. It is used to develop applications for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Google Fuchsia and the web.

The Allesbeste production team uses an app for different observation transactions such as soil sampling for irrigation management, scouting for insect management and weed control, crop estimates from photos. The app allows for GPS coordinates to provide the exact point at which the transaction gets recorded for use on maps. The app has also been developed in-house by Edrean and his team.

Allesbeste and ERP software

Allesbeste implemented ERP software, Acumatica in 2018. There were some big lessons learned, such as getting the right partner for the implementation. Allesbeste has had to change partners since the Acumatica deployment. André’s advice is this: “Get references for the software as well as the partner company before choosing the software as well as the implementation partner”.

Edrean says: “ERP software cannot fulfil all the farming business needs for software, but forms a backbone for the other software systems and should be the single point of truth. You may still need additional software for farm production processes or fleet management as an example. If data differs between the ERP and another program, make sure that the ERP system is always correct and get the other program to agree.”

Allesbeste is still using Pastel Payroll, which does not integrate with their ERP or production system. They are looking at other payroll solutions to find one that can incorporate, to cut out the dual entry of minimum wages and workers, for example.

Business Intelligence (BI Software)

Unfortunately, most ERP programs are lacking when it comes to reporting and visualising data. BI software is often needed to help to report and to visualise the data from the ERP.

Allesbeste is using Qlik Sense as a BI tool with RIC Consulting as the partner company that helps them with specialised reports. RIC manages the licensing and the support of Qlik Sense for Allesbeste. The employees at RIC are experts at creating visual stories that show information better than the average vanilla bar graph or pie chart. RIC offer services on a retainer or a project basis depending on what their client needs.

Cloud vs Server

Allesbeste is still using a server, although they are moving more and more to web-based software. Internet connectivity used to be a problem in the past, which meant they needed to have their server on site. The company now has three options for connectivity to the internet (ADSL line, Letaba Wireless SkyFibre and LTE) and uses them intermittently.

A wireless network connects the Allesbeste farms. In the locations where there is no connectivity, data is captured and later updated to the database when the connection is restored.

Having a network that covers most of the farm is essential to be able to have real-time capturing of transactions on an ERP program.

Off-the-shelf vs Own development

Allesbeste prefers developing their own software whenever off-the-shelf software do not offer sufficient functionality. Off-the-shelf software does not always have the specific fields that they require for their crop, or the notification trigger to send notifications for particular events. Edrean is, for example, working on a machine learning model where their software identifies the exact pest from the scouting photo taken of an insect trap. According to him, there is off the shelf models that he could develop further to a deeper level to identify pests specific to avocados.


Edrean and Zander Ernst bought their drones to experiment with instead of making use of an external company that provides drones to provide a service. Initially they bought a 3DR SoloDrone to model arial maps for new orchard planning. The drone was taken of the market which made it difficult to buy new batteries. After that they purchased a DGI drone, and it was sufficient for their needs.

Example Drone

Plans for other agritech solutions

The implementation of technology will always be a work in progress, and Allesbeste is still looking at other solutions for some of the applications that they are using at the moment.  One such solution could be a rover taking photos for crop estimates. Edrean and Zander would build their rover rather than trying to buy something since they are lucky enough to have the skills.

Key Learning points

“AgriTech does not have to be complicated or expensive. Nowadays off-the-shelf hobbyist hardware solutions are more than sufficient to address many on-farm challenges, and much has been done by manufacturers to make it simple and easy to connect, program and implement without much prior technical knowledge.”

Edrean Ernst