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Local agritech event bridges industry gaps at inaugural Cape Agritech Connect
Author: Jeraldine Menon, Innovus
Published: 11/06/2024

?The inaugural Cape Agritech Connect brought together over a hundred attendees representing the diverse sectors within the Western Cape agriculture industry. Set against the picturesque backdrop of Boschendal estate, the event formed the “sweet spot" for innovation by identifying pressing issues, and creating a dialogue for potential solutions. Some of the research and startup pitch highlights included cannabinoids, livestock farming, vertical farming and herbal medicines.

The agricultural landscape in the Western Cape faces numerous challenges which are intensified by the fragmented efforts of businesses, farmers, researchers, and policymakers. Recognising the industry's potential for transformation, the Cape Agritech Connect event aimed to gather industry stakeholders to improve research and development in this sector.

“We were overwhelmed by the response and enthusiasm of people wanting to participate. In the end we had to turn people away, but we knew then that were onto something great" says Hanli Brink, Operations Director of Stellenbosch Network.

Hosted by Stellenbosch 肆客足球's (SU) Innovus Technology Transfer Office, SU LaunchLab in collaboration with Stellenbosch Network, the event was sponsored by Von Seidels, South Africa Wine and BioGold.

The first panel, moderated by Nolene Singh, Deputy Director of Innovus Technology Transfer Office, explored research and development trends in local agriculture innovation. Panellists, including Professor Kennedy Dzama, Vice-Dean of Research, Postgraduate studies and Innovation at SU, Dr Albert Strever, Senior Lecturer at SU Faculty of AgriScience, Dr Viresh Rambaran, Managing Director at BioGold, and Professor Wiehann Steyn, General Manager at Hortgro addressed the challenges and untapped opportunities for innovation.

Dr. Rambaran described the last decade as the “perfect storm of challenges" owing to loadshedding which can be linked directly to the rising cost of labour, logistics and clean energy solutions. Highlighting startups such as SU's spinouts Terraclim and GeoSmart, the panel underscored the importance of precision farming in bridging the gap between reducing costs and sustainability. Both spinouts have climate data solutions that have assisted farmers to mitigate extreme weather conditions such as drought and heavy rainfall. The discussion went on to iterate that such strategies should be aligned with local government entities as well as ensuring that there are sufficient “warm bodies" (staff) to execute the strategy.

The panel stressed the need for innovation in response to changing regulations, phytosanitary issues, and access to markets abroad. In this regard, there is a dire need to break down siloes and embrace a holistic approach to agricultural advancement. The discussions went on to describe agriculture as an innate value chain of which engineering, chemical engineering, polymer science, health sciences and the likes, all form part. "Therefore, it is imperative that we start to break the boundaries of 'industry' and 'faculty' in order to fill the gaps and consider the entire value chain", says Dr. Rambaran.

To demonstrate some of the advancements in agriculture research, SU spinout Sporatech presented their soil microbiology technology. Followed by the SU Cannabinoids project led by Prof. Neill Goosen, Associate Professor at the SU Department of Chemical Engineering, describing their method of separating the active components from the wax, returning the active compounds to the purification process, and enabling the utilisation of the waxes in other applications. Other research presented was the Livestock Management Database System (LMDS) aimed at smallholder farmer's sustainability, and an insightful overview of Plant Breeders Rights.

The second panel, moderated by Brandon Paschal, Deputy Director of SU Spinout Companies and Funds, explored the impact of technology in the Western Cape agriculture industry. Taking part in the discussion was Tara Southey, CEO of Terraclim, Mico Stander, Director at IMPI/Agrimotion, Gerard Martin, Research and Development Manager at SA Wine and FG Adriaanse, Founder and CEO at Adagin Technologies.

As the newest startup on the panel, Terraclim's Southey spoke about her experiences with industry. She echoed the previous panel's discussions about low adoption of new technology. Farmers are apprehensive of technology because of the risk and perceived lack of skills to utilise it. The panel expressed the dire need for stronger relationships to be forged between service providers and farmers to remedy this perception.

From a wine farming perspective, Martin advised that farmers are more willing and open to learn and keen to experiment with new technology if it will address their challenges. He notes that in these technology solutions lie a lot of potential business models of which wine farmers are aware and that they are willing to share their space.

Mico spoke about farmers being approached with solutions before learning about region-specific problems. From this perspective data sharing is crucial. The discussions highlighted that such data can only be obtained by investing in research outcomes which is what will advance the sector. The panel considered the creation of a pipeline or fund to assist companies emerging from the university, which will ensure that research translates into tangible solutions rather than remaining confined to academic theses.

The panel discussions were followed by agritech startup pitches including Future Fit Agri, a data processing tech solution exclusive to the agricultural ecosystem. Arable Grow, a vertical farming solution combining technology, horticulture and sustainability into controlled environments that utilises 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods. Other tech startups included GeoSmart, a SU spinout company that uses data to find solutions to geographical problems by combining geospatial thinking with cutting-edge technologies.

BioTrac, another SU spinout company, presented their development of IoT sensors and controllers designed to monitor metabolic activity and surface adhesion. The last startup to pitch was People Flow, a paperless HR system for employers of blue-collar jobs.

The discussions, presentations, pitches and exhibitions and networking were successful in bringing together the right stakeholders who can collaborate and take action.

"This event is just one of many planned upcoming activities for the agritech sector in the Western Cape. "The expectation is not that these events will solve problems in the local agritech industry but that it will spark the dialogue needed to produce change", says Hanli Brink, Operations Manager at Stellenbosch Network.

For more information on how you can get involved, register your business as a Stellenbosch Network member. For news, opportunities and other initiatives, subscribe to the Stellenbosch Network monthly newsletter.


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Jeraldine Menon