Case studies

South Africa goes nuts for happy IoTrees

How u-blox low-power IoT connectivity turned a South African macadamia nut farm into a model of productivity and efficiency.

macadamia nuts south african farm

South African nut farmer turned to innovative IoT solutions in order to better manage his crop of Macadamia nuts, taking into account everything from soil moisture levels through to vehicle maintenance management. With the help of u-blox’s cost-effective, reliable, secure, and low-power IoT connectivity technology, u-blox Solutions Partner, Pylot is enabling Robert Carlton-Shields to turn his farm into a model of efficiency and productivity.

In developing markets such as Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, the potential of IoT is limitless; IDC predicted that IoT in Africa and the Middle East will see a growth of 15% to $7bn in 2018. This growth is already becoming evident in South Africa, where businesses are being forced to adapt to the new business models brought about by IoT. But not all IoT solutions are equal…

Stress: nemesis of the macadamia tree

Robert Carlton-Shields bought his Macadamia nut farm in 2011. The farm is approximately 100 hectares, which comprises 52 orchards, all of varying sizes. The farm currently produces approximately 200 tons of nuts per year, ranking it among one of the larger producers of Macadamia nuts in South Africa.

Macadamia trees are particularly susceptible to stress. Periods of prolonged drought (as was the case in South Africa in 2015) and overcompensating with watering frequently results in stressed Macadamia orchards. The results can be extremely damaging to yield and quality.

Unless you are prepared to have a very dedicated (and expensive overhead) workforce out in the field, then optimizing yield and tree welfare is a real challenge to manage successfully.

What was the problem?

Having bought his farm in 2011, Robert decided to use technology to see if there were efficiencies to be gained by deploying a number of moisture sensing probes across his farm to help make timely irrigation decisions. It soon became clear that the probes, while accurate, needed as much time and effort (as physical observation) to manage properly. Each probe needed to be visited, have its data downloaded, and then be brought back for interpretation. By the time a meaningful decision on irrigation needs could be made, up to a week could have gone by.

Robert persisted and the next technical evolution was to attach a SIM to each of the farm’s 52 probes. While connectivity provided data collection efficiencies, each SIM had its own data plan (which needed to be manually ‘topped up’), and each probe needed to be initiated to collect the data. Add in multiple operators supplying the SIMs, plus the need to interpret the data, and the solution was still impractical to manage in order to gain efficiencies.

What was the solution?

Mid 2018, enter Thinsgtream (now part of u-blox), via their South African (specialist farming) System Integrator partner, Pylot. u-blox’s MQTT Anywhere IoT Communication-as-a-Service solution offers a single global SIM offering, meaning there are no roaming charges – one SIM accesses hundreds of operator networks. Data is sent, in this case from the moisture sensing probes, over the voice channel of the local network operator. Using the voice channel is significantly more cost-effective than using a dedicated data channel and provides a higher level of security. Data is collected, analyzed, and presented on the customer’s dashboard – all in real-time.

“I can now efficiently manage the irrigation of a 100-hectare farm and optimize machinery workflow, all from one cost-effective and reliable IoT dashboard” - Robert Carlton-Shields, owner of R&K Estates Macadamia farm

The u-blox solution not only allows for the real-time collection and presentation of moisture level data (allowing for timely irrigation decisions) but going forward, trackers will also be fitted to the farm’s machinery, ensuring that farming workflows can be optimized for vehicle maintenance and even pest and fungus spraying performance.

What were the results?

What benefits are emerged having started the switch to u-blox’s solution? Broadly speaking, the farm can now optimize costs, labor usage, and yields and quality:

  • Labor – there is no need to have a dedicated person running about in charge of data logging. This person can now be more gainfully employed elsewhere on the farm.
  • Electricity – money will be saved due to more accurate irrigation and less electricity being used.
  • Water – irrigation is more accurately managed, meaning an overall saving in water consumption by the farm.
  • Robert’s Macadamia trees are less likely to be stressed, due to informed and timely decisions regarding bespoke orchard-by-orchard irrigation needs.
  • Non-stressed ‘happy trees’ means better yields and higher quality Macadamia nuts.

"For IoT solutions out in the field, there was previously just the option to use 3G. Then low power IoT network (LPWAN) providers such as LoRA, Ingenu, and SigFox became available. The challenge with these LPWAN’s is that they are not readily available in the agricultural areas, and it becomes a long and costly process of setting up bespoke access points and high sites to provide these new LPWAN services. For example, we’ve run into planning issues for the masts, and this can be just to provide a trial of the service – it’s simply not quick enough or cost-effective. The u-blox IoT network has a ubiquitous coverage footprint, is low power, cost-effective, and can be up and running in hours. Combine that with the data collection and reporting platform they provide and this is an IoT revolution." - Trevor Hart-Jones, MD, Pylot

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