Start-up, IBM put data in the henhouse

A small South African start-up, Omniolytics, backed by IBM, is providing an agritech boost to poultry farmers

18 July 2021 - 00:12 By Arthur Goldstuck

A series of information technology initiatives by IBM is set to provide an unprecedented hi-tech boost for farmers in SA and across Africa. In many cases, the projects are geared to bringing even the smallest farmer into the world of agritech.IBM has announced its backing for a small South African start-up called Omniolytics, to help transform poultry farming through the use of digital sensors linked to the IBM Cloud and its artificial intelligence platform, Watson.The poultry industry was valued at more than R46bn in 2019, and makes up more than 16% of the total value of agricultural production in SA. The local poultry industry faces numerous challenges, including the quality and origins of feeds, high feed prices and recurring avian flu and other disease outbreaks. In 2018, avian flu cost the economy close to R1bn.With the help of IBM, Omniolytics uses Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to collect data on the environmental conditions of poultry facilities, management activities and processes. The data is collected in the cloud, analysed by Watson, and the output used to reduce losses and improve production efficiency.Watson identifies and learns the typical behaviour of birds, gives farmers a more complete picture of the wellbeing of their flocks, and identifies processes and environmental deviations that point to potential problems."The poultry industry is massively important, not just in South Africa and in Africa but globally," says Omniolytics founder Michael Samson. "It is the cheapest form of protein and is the biggest part of the South African agricultural sector in terms of GDP contribution. But production levels haven't supported the demand."We have an agricultural management platform that looks at key components of improving production efficiency, reducing the risk of failure and opening market opportunities. "Then there are the challenges emerging farmers have in participating in the formal value chain. There are standards, firstly. Secondly there is access to quality inputs, and then there is market access. "Those are huge barriers that segregate large producers and emerging producers. Our approach was to work with both to grow the industry as a whole."Omniolytics developed a product called DataViz, which draws data from wireless sensors placed in the chicken broiler house to monitor environmental conditions, like air and water quality, and to schedule activities and set thresholds. The platform captures live and historic trends, and can be accessed from a mobile device or a computer.Its Local Insights platform guides farmers in adopting prescribed practices and predicting performance against targets, and OmnioFarm draws on IBM Watson's machine-learning capabilities to ensure higher levels of animal health and efficiency, ensuring sustainable agricultural productivity.Omniolytics is the latest beneficiary of IBM's Equity Equivalence Investment Programme (EEIP), which provides emerging enterprises with access to resources, technical support and business mentorship, in a blend of financial and non-financial support.IBM Southern Africa technology leader Craig Holmes says part of the programme focuses on supporting young entrepreneurs. "We've a dedicated team that scours the market, looking at attributes like start-ups that are born in the cloud, and leveraging cloud technology. "There are lots of providers of cloud infrastructure, but what sets us apart is this idea that the world is fuelled by data. There's a tremendous shortage of data scientists, so we look to spend our enterprise supplier development money with start-ups that are in that space."I sit on a panel that decides who we give money to and when I saw Omniolytics, I thought these guys are not only cool, but they've also instrumented an industry which is vital in food production. They've used Watson to modernise their supply chain and also to manage its individual components. "IoT is a hard space in which to make money so I'm extremely proud of Michael and his team. It is a success story and we'll keep supporting them as they grow."Holmes points out that IBM has developed a strong presence in the agriculture space."We've got a trusted global platform where we can effectively track food from farm to fork. And we've got a number of initiatives running in Africa."These include the Digital4Agriculture Initiative, which aims to foster African agricultural start-ups; leveraging expertise from IBM Services and making high-resolution weather data from the IBM-owned Weather Company available; and the Africa Rainfall Project, which aims to improve local rain forecasts in the Sub-Saharan region and help farmers better plan their crop strategy.

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