By Dr Eugene Brink
It is axiomatic: Agriculture will continue to play a pivotal role in South Africa’s society and economy. While most sectors have shown great declines during the Covid-19 period, agriculture has proven to be remarkably resilient – after all, everybody needs to eat and food security will occupy a permanent top position on the policy agenda.
It is for this very reason that agricultural engineers will remain in high demand.
The African Society for Agricultural Engineers (AfroAgEng) says agricultural productivity in Africa remains the lowest in the world. “Recent concerns about food security, water security, rapidly expanding global population, rising food prices and unsustainable resource utilisation have focussed world-wide interest on the role of agricultural production in feeding Africa and the world. Most of the world’s uncultivated agricultural land is in Africa, yet the capacity to harness this resource remains limited due partly to very low application of innovative technologies which are necessary for improved and sustainable food production.”
South African Institute of Agricultural Engineers (SAIAE) vice-president Thabo Mavundza says the desire to improve the efficiency of water and energy use, coupled with the introduction of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are driving agricultural engineering innovations in South Africa. “Subsequently, agricultural engineers continue to introduce innovative solutions and address challenges in mechanisation, irrigation and bulk-water movement, dams, post-harvest handling systems, animal handling facilities and alternative or renewable energy.”
The Agricultural Research Council of South Africa enumerates the various tasks that agricultural engineering entails. Firstly, they improve the appropriateness and affordability of farm infrastructure and animal production facilities. Secondly, they improve equipment and techniques for sustainable use and development of soil and water resources through research on best practices and new innovations.
Moreover, they examine how to improve crop production through improved mechanisation by developing precision farming systems and electronic equipment. Especially in South Africa, power concerns loom large. Agricultural engineers seek to find solutions to sustainability and electricity efficiencies. This covers numerous fields, such as solar thermal energy (solar/air drying), wind energy (windmill pumps), bioenergy (biodiesel and thermoconversion), waste-to-energy methods (biogas), solar PV and microhydropower (harnessing the energy of flowing water).
In short demand
According to Mavundza, agricultural engineers are in short supply – good news for those looking to enter the profession but bad news for the country. He says despite droughts, water-rights allocations and land reform issues, the agricultural sector continues to grow unabated. As a result, private-sector demand for agricultural engineers has increased, but government has failed to retain and employ more of them.
He says that over the past 15 years, civil and mechanical engineers have occupied most positions within agricultural engineering – instead of agricultural engineers – in private, government and agricultural organisations. He says the fact that the role of an agricultural engineer has been mistaken for being a farmer has damaged its popularity and led to a skills shortage in the sector.
Agricultural engineers continue to introduce innovative solutions and address challenges in mechanisation, irrigation and bulk-water movement, dams, post-harvest handling systems, animal-handling facilities and alternative or renewable energy. “These solutions are being introduced through different platforms to government, consultants and private-sector engineers and farmers. In addition, agricultural engineers have, over the years, proved to be great operations and business managers with their ability to relate, understand and work with engineers from all other disciplines,” says Mavundza.
AfroAgEng, 2018, “Welcome to the Pan African Society for Agricultural Engineering – PASAE”, http://www.pasae.org.za/.
Agricultural Research Council, 2014, “ARC-Agricultural Engineering”, https://www.arc.agric.za/arc-iae/Pages/ARC-IAE%20Homepage.aspx.
Tracy Hancock, 7 August 2020, “Agricultural engineers are an endangered species”, https://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/agricultural-engineers-are-an-endangered-species-2020-07-21/rep_id:4136.