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“A new app developed by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) is helping ensure food security in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. The brains behind the app are Matodzi Phaswana and her team, who are developing initiatives to solve problems within the agricultural sector.

Matodzi works as a team leader for research and development applications at the ARC, whose vision is excellence in agricultural research and development. The ARC is an entity of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. She leads a team of seven systems developers. Her job entails overseeing the team’s work, delegating work to team members, attending management meetings, compiling and producing quarterly reports for her section and doing presentations on behalf of the team.

“Our core business as the ARC is agricultural research and development and my team is entrusted with the task of developing applications that support the institution in its mandate and to achieve its objectives,” she explains.

Increasing harvests

The team’s most recent innovation is the Maize Information Guide app, which was launched this year to contribute to food security in the SADC region. The app is available on the Google Play Store and it allows commercial and smallholder farmers to easily access scientifically proven data on maize production, insect identification and disease management, and weed and nematodes (worm) control. The app aims to help farmers increase their harvests per hectare and contribute to food security through the integration of agriculture and information technology.

“Maize is one of the staple foods in South Africa and globally. Due to its affordability, it contributes significantly to food security and nutrition. As the ARC, we are com- mitted to providing farmers and industry with technological solutions aimed at enhancing good quality food production.”

In-house expertise

It took the ARC almost 18 months to develop the Maize Information Guide app and to ensure that the information it provides is accurate and reliable.

“The maize app is our first to be developed in-house. We previously collaborated with other institutions or outsourced resources to help develop apps, such as AgriCloud, which provides farmers and agricultural extension officers in South Africa with advisory services regarding planting and weed control. This was launched in collaboration with the South African Weather Service and Rain4Africa,” she says.

AgriCloud users get real-time, localised advice on when to plant, as well as on spray conditions according to the time of day. The advisories are available in nine of the official languages: Setswana, IsiXhosa, Afrikaans, Isi- Zulu, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, Sesotho, Sepedi and English.

Matodzi believes agricultural technology solutions – like precision farming, smart farming and automation – make life easier for farmers. Having grown up in the rural village of Muswodi Tshisimani in Venda, Limpopo, she understands the importance of food security and the challenges farmers face.

“Information must be available for farmers anywhere, anytime, through the apps that we are developing,” she says.

This is in addition to the information available on the ARC website.

Matodzi has been in the ICT industry for more than 15 years. She holds a National Diploma in Information Technology from Tshwane University of Technology and is currently studying towards her BTech. She started her career as an assistant statistical officer at Statistics South Africa and thereafter held positions in the private and public sectors before joining the ARC as a systems developer. She left the ARC to work as a business intelligence developer for Legal Aid South Africa before returning as a senior systems developer. During her time at the ARC, she has acted in various management positions but her interest is vested in research and development because of the opportunities presented to offer solutions to agricultural challenges.

Matodzi and her team aim to capitalise on the richness of the data that the ARC has gathered through the years to develop future innovative solutions for farmers.

“It is our intention to expand the variety of apps that can be rolled out to farmers to assist in addressing the challenges they face. We are currently developing other agriculture information apps,” she says.

Planting success

Last year Matodzi and her colleagues were part of the team that won the Amazon Web Services’ special prize (agriculture and food) during the Hackathon held in Zurich, Switzerland. The main goal of the Hackathon was to explore cases with the potential to solve real-world challenges. Teams had 42 hours to come up with a concept that would address a specified challenge.They had to come up with business and technical solutions and present these in a three-minute video to the judges.

Her message of encouragement to public servants is that the key to success lies in learning and understanding their department or entity’s core business, as well as that of its relevant stakeholders. This, she says, will enable them to propose workable solutions to challenges
faced.”

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