SMS for better sugar crops

23 August 2005

Innovative use of cellular technology is helping small-scale sugar farmers in northern KwaZulu-Natal to improve their crops.

A pilot project is bringing the advantages of technology to small-scale farmers and, at the same time, making the most efficient use of their scarce water resources.

Weather data are recorded automatically and sent to the South African Sugar Research Institute’s Mount Edgecombe base. A web-based crop simulation model, My Canesim, is then used to estimate the amount of soil water available to the crop in each field of sugarcane.

The system then decides whether irrigation should continue, be stopped, or resume. This advice is automatically sent to individual farmers by SMS.

Farmer Dlokwakhe Mthembu recieves an SMS, in Zulu, each Wednesday advising him on an irrigation strategy for the week ahead.

The system was implemented on a limited scale in the Bivane irrigation project, near Pongola in northern KwaZulu-Natal, during 2004/05. Cane growth, irrigation, rainfall and soil water of the fields were monitored to evaluate the system.

Initially sceptical, the farmers involved in the pilot study were convinced when concepts were explained and delivery methods adjusted to accommodate them. The six selected growers have closely followed the advice, and indications are that excellent yields will be achieved.

“The computer programme itself is not a new concept,” South African Sugar Association (SASA) researcher Abraham Singles told Engineeering News. “But we think this is the first time we have been able to give farm-specific advice.”

Mthembu was one of the first small-scale farmers to use the technology, and though he admits an initial scepitism, is now a keen advocate. He farms 10 hectares of sugar cane in Bivane, and delivers to Illovo Sugar’s Pongola Mill. He expects to return higher yields, and a better cane quality, than the Pongola Mill average.

Mthembu is one of about 45 000 small-scale growers in KwaZulu-Natal who could benefit from such a scheme. The extension service is one of the results of a joint venture between SASA and the provincial department of agriculture.

“I think this must take off – it’s so simple,” SASA chairman and commercial sugar farmer Rodger Stewart told Reuters.

“It saves water, it saves costs. A lot of commercial farmers have their own programmes on their computers to do this, but here the model is much more sophisticated.” reporter