Innovative Farming Methods Changing Agricultural Landscape

Farming has evolved over the years from traditional ways of growing fruit and vegetables to more innovative sustainable methods, and even in South Africa, we are beginning to see a marked shift towards looking for innovative solutions to various problems like ensuring fresh produce makes its way to communities that need it. Given the drastic challenges that traditional farming methods face, including:the effects of climate change, water scarcity, growth of population and changing political environments (land ownership in particular in the South African context), it’s no surprise that Innovative farming methods are constantly emerging to simplify processes, help guarantee higher yields, and bring the produce itself closer to the communities it serves.

Some methods of farming that go beyond the tradiotional approach which have recently surfaced include:

  • Urban Farming
  • Rooftop farming
  • Urban Hydroponics Farming
  • Small Space Farming
  • Aquaponics
  • Precision Farming
  • Window Farming
  • Innovative support systems to farming

The main focus of the emergence of these innovative farming methods comes as a solution-oriented alternative to traditional farming methods which struggle to keep up with demand, especially in the face of climate change and population growth. The year 2015 has been the hottest year on record, making it difficult for traditional methods to sustain the ever-growing population.  Unusual weather patterns in themselves have continuously challenged farmers and reduced yields overall.

Though books could be (and have been) written on the various methods mentioned above, we thought we’d briefly touch on a few to give a bit more information:

Urban Farming

With urbanization gaining popularity, people are moving from the rural to the urban in ever greater numbers.  This has led to shrinking of an entire generation of traditional farmers in rural areas. But cities could be feeding themselves, and, with the slow food movement, and a push towards buying local, urban farming has taken hold of suburban residents and is now gradually moving into cities as well.  We see farming from rooftops, backyards and in vacant spaces where people are growing food for themselves and their communities at large. In some parts of Africa, sack farming has also taken root in urban and suburban areas to supplement income and/or diet.

In South Africa, Cape Town residents are taking it to the next level. Farming from every corner of the city, in parking lots, overtaking lawns and growing plants in old tv sets. This, as a result, is feeding families and creates a stream of income, allowing people to participate in the economy.

Precision Farming

Precision agriculture (PA), sometimes referred to as satellite farming, is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops through the use of technology. This method allows farmers to analyse and manage the soil before planting crops which reduces risks of lost harvests. With the introduction of drone technology, farmers can now manage and detect problems in minutes, which is much more convenient and cost effective as compared to the traditional method of routine patrols which could take hours on large scale farms (not to mention costing on petrol for vehicle patrols).


This is a method of farming without the use of soil. Hydroponics technique grows plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water. The Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is the most common type of hydroponics and plants have constant flow of nutrients. The system is best for greens and for larger plants systems such as ebb and flow, and drip can be used, for example, planting tomatoes.

Not only does hydroponics save on land use (the systems can be stacked and take op a smaller space for higher yields), it is also used up to 90% less water than traditional farming methods and can potentially eliminate the seasonability that is a reality for traditional farming methods.  Though large scale production may still happen in rural areas, hydroponics can vary widely in size and can be maintained in houses, on rooftops, and in other traditionally urban settings.

Update: Simanye itself has also shown its interest in and support of hydroponic farming in the form of RoofTop Roots, located in the Johannesburg CBD and spreading across rooftops in the surrounding area. The social business model is as follows: by selling “premium” produce, such as herbs to local restaurants and grocery stores, RoofTop Roots offsets the costs of lesser-costing produce like spinach, which can be sold at an even lower price to the local community.


A step beyond hydroponics is a completely closed-loop system known as aquaponics.

This method is similar to hydroponics with the difference being in aquaponics there is the use of fish instead of nutrients to give food to the plants (fish waste) and in reverse the plants cleans water for the fish. The benefit of this system is the closed loop, where the plants feed the fish and vice versa.  Like hydroponics, systems can vary in size, can be configured vertically, and use dramatically less water than traditional methods of farming.

Traditional Farming Methods vs Innovative Farming Methods

Each method of farming, whether it is urban or rural in nature, has its own pros and cons:

Traditional rural farming methods

  • Range of products can be produced
  • Productivity is very high
  • High transportation costs due to geographic landscape
  • Seasonal which affects production
  • Less technical
  • Not popular to younger generations
  • Risks associated with farming are relatively high

Urban innovative farming methods

  • Capital investment often high
  • Interesting to young people
  • Variables are controllable
  • Less transport costs
  • Less contamination
  • Mitigates urbanization effects
  • Productivity high (can be done all year round)
  • Risks are limited
  • Larger plants cannot be produced

The way forward

All or nothing solutions that focus on either just rural traditional farming or the new innovative farming methods typically miss the nuances and complexity of our changing world and changing needs. Innovations also do happen in the rural settings and can help mitigate many of the negative effects seen to date.

We’re big proponents of embracing new technologies and testing new methods to find new ways to be more efficient with and kind to our environment.  There’s something to be said for having food at one’s fingertips, but it’s pretty clear traditional farming is still a cornerstone of the South African supply chain.  However, finding new techniques, and supporting farmers in a quickly evolving industry will be ever more important in the coming years as we struggle to manage changes in climate and population.

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