School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Participants at the African Conference on Precision Agriculture site on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus.

Precision Agriculture Conference Furthers the Science in Africa

UKZN was one of 10 satellite sites around the continent that joined the main site in Nairobi, Kenya to host the second  (AfCPA), an initiative of the African Plant Nutrition Institute (APNI) in partnership with Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P), the International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA), and the African Association for Precision Agriculture (AAPA).

The South African site was hosted by the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS) in UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences. The CTAFS’ research focus includes crop-climate modelling, drone technologies, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing that align with the AfCPA’s mission to connect the science and practice required to activate precision agriculture for Africa.

‘As the CTAFS, we are really excited to be partnering with the APNI and its partners to host this satellite site as it aligns with our strategic mission to promote precision agriculture, especially with a strong focus on delivering for smallholder farmers in rural areas under climate change, and transforming agricultural systems,’ said CTAFS Co-Director Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi.

‘We are also glad that it offers an important opportunity for our partners in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa to network with the broader audience that is taking part in this event,’ added Mabhaudhi.

More than 30 participants attended the proceedings at the South African satellite site on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, joining more than 600 in-person and online participants across the main and satellite sites representing 34 countries, including 18 on the African continent.

There were 140 presenters and as a satellite site, the UKZN programme accessed not only high-level virtual talks by international experts, but also included local content sessions where local experts and young scientists had the opportunity to present their research. Organisations represented included UKZN, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

UKZN master’s student Ms Amanda Nyawose presented on estimating maize evapotranspiration in smallholder farms using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) derived data and surface energy balance modelling techniques, work forming part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) funded project on the use of drone technology to monitor the state of crops to improve water use productivity with precision agriculture and improved irrigation scheduling. Master’s graduate Ms Snethemba Helen Ndlovu presented her research from the same project, detailing a comparative estimation of maize leaf water content using machine learning techniques and UAV-based proximal and remotely sensed data.

CSIR researchers Drs Sphumelele Ndlovu and Nobuhle Majozi each presented their work on biophotonics, machine learning and remote sensing in agriculture, while Dr Mbulisi Sibanda, a senior lecturer at UWC, UKZN alumnus and CTAFS honorary research fellow presented on detecting the impact of hail damage on maize crops in smallholder farms using UAV-derived multispectral data.

The three-day conference culminated in a closing session where the APNI’s prestigious Precision Agriculture Award was presented to two recipients. Presented to senior or early-career scientists, it recognises outstanding activity in the field of precision agriculture research, outreach, or education in precision agriculture in Africa.

Sibanda was one of the scientists to receive the award for 2022, which comprised USD 2 500 per scientist. A National Research Foundation Y-rated researcher, Sibanda completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UKZN in 2020 after graduating with his PhD in optical remote sensing of grassland biomass in data-scarce environments from the University in 2017. He completed his Master’s in Geography, specialising in GIS and remote sensing applications, at the University of Zimbabwe in 2011.

Sibanda’s research interests are in environmental science, focusing on GIS and earth observation applications. Passionate about working in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary collaborative environments, he uses biodiversity conservation practices, agroecology, hydrology, and remote sensing to simulate the impact of climate change, alien invasive species, and other agents on terrestrial ecosystems and agricultural landscapes. His current research focuses on the use of drone technologies in agroecological ecosystems, and he has extensive experience in human socio-economic research, particularly in relation to climate change.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Cindy Chamane