I have just done my first tech customer interview with Edrean Ernst from Allesbeste Boerdery and what an incredible conversation it was. Driving on the R71, at the foot of the beautiful Magoebaskloof pass near Tzaneen, you will find Allesbeste Boerdery on your left.
The Allesbeste Boerdery History
Adalbert H. Ernst, a British national who immigrated from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), founded Allesbeste Boerdery in 1927 when he bought the farm on which Allesbeste’s head office and avocado nursery are situated.
In 1980, when André joined his father on the family farm, Allesbeste was well placed to take advantage of the upswing in avocado production. With a degree in horticulture, André went on to obtain a DSc(Agric).
He began increasing the number of avocado orchards on the farm. He purchased four additional farms between 1995 and 2013, adding a further 225ha to Allesbeste Boerdery, thereby spreading his risk across different geographical areas. He started to experiment with different cultivars in the Allesbeste nursery, and his trials soon paid off when he developed the new Maluma cultivar.
Allesbeste Boerdery is now managed by André, his wife, two sons, Zander and Edrean and a whole team of people. The business has 230ha of avocado orchards, 26ha of banana plantations, 70ha of eucalyptus trees, a nursery producing 200 000 trees a year, and a farm stall. The family also owns shares in Afrupro, an export company run on a co-op basis, as well as shares in Letaba packhouse, also owned by a group of farmers.
The use of Technology at Allesbeste
From my discussion with Edrean Ernst, it is clear that all the Ernst’s have a keen interest in technology and using it for innovation in their business is encouraged amongst their employees. My interactions with the Ernsts has made me rethink my definition of Agritech. They are innovative, not only when it comes to technology, but are at the forefront of experimenting with various avocado rootstocks and cultivars, trying out new production techniques such as trellising in the orchards and working with laboratories in Australia to do genome testing on different cultivars.
In the eighties, Andre Ernst bought a PC (Personal computer) within the first three years after PCs became available on the market to be able to do his books on it. Even as a pre-schooler Edrean immediately showed in interest.
Allesbeste has developed its own in-house integrated farming systems that incorporate all the different software systems with its ERP program, Acumatica. The company has two full-time developers working with Edrean, one specialising in the back end development and the other on front end development and the user interface.
Over time the team at Allesbeste has been moving from software instances on their server to web-based software. Edrean also uses Flutter for mobile applications. Flutter is an open-source software development kit created by Google. It is used to develop applications for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Google Fuchsia and the web.
The Allesbeste production team uses an app for different observation transactions such as soil sampling for irrigation management, scouting for insect management and weed control, crop estimates from photos. The app allows for GPS coordinates to provide the exact point at which the transaction gets recorded for use on maps. The app has also been developed in-house by Edrean and his team.
Allesbeste and ERP software
Allesbeste implemented ERP software, Acumatica in 2018. There were some big lessons learned, such as getting the right partner for the implementation. Allesbeste has had to change partners since the Acumatica deployment. André’s advice is this: “Get references for the software as well as the partner company before choosing the software as well as the implementation partner”.
Edrean says: “ERP software cannot fulfil all the farming business needs for software, but forms a backbone for the other software systems and should be the single point of truth. You may still need additional software for farm production processes or fleet management as an example. If data differs between the ERP and another program, make sure that the ERP system is always correct and get the other program to agree.”
Allesbeste is still using Pastel Payroll, which does not integrate with their ERP or production system. They are looking at other payroll solutions to find one that can incorporate, to cut out the dual entry of minimum wages and workers, for example.
Business Intelligence (BI Software)
Unfortunately, most ERP programs are lacking when it comes to reporting and visualising data. BI software is often needed to help to report and to visualise the data from the ERP.
Allesbeste is using Qlik Sense as a BI tool with RIC Consulting as the partner company that helps them with specialised reports. RIC manages the licensing and the support of Qlik Sense for Allesbeste. The employees at RIC are experts at creating visual stories that show information better than the average vanilla bar graph or pie chart. RIC offer services on a retainer or a project basis depending on what their client needs.
Cloud vs Server
Allesbeste is still using a server, although they are moving more and more to web-based software. Internet connectivity used to be a problem in the past, which meant they needed to have their server on site. The company now has three options for connectivity to the internet (ADSL line, Letaba Wireless SkyFibre and LTE) and uses them intermittently.
A wireless network connects the Allesbeste farms. In the locations where there is no connectivity, data is captured and later updated to the database when the connection is restored.
Having a network that covers most of the farm is essential to be able to have real-time capturing of transactions on an ERP program.
Off-the-shelf vs Own development
Allesbeste prefers developing their own software whenever off-the-shelf software do not offer sufficient functionality. Off-the-shelf software does not always have the specific fields that they require for their crop, or the notification trigger to send notifications for particular events. Edrean is, for example, working on a machine learning model where their software identifies the exact pest from the scouting photo taken of an insect trap. According to him, there is off the shelf models that he could develop further to a deeper level to identify pests specific to avocados.
Edrean and Zander Ernst bought their drones to experiment with instead of making use of an external company that provides drones to provide a service. Initially they bought a 3DR SoloDrone to model arial maps for new orchard planning. The drone was taken of the market which made it difficult to buy new batteries. After that they purchased a DGI drone, and it was sufficient for their needs.
Plans for other agritech solutions
The implementation of technology will always be a work in progress, and Allesbeste is still looking at other solutions for some of the applications that they are using at the moment. One such solution could be a rover taking photos for crop estimates. Edrean and Zander would build their rover rather than trying to buy something since they are lucky enough to have the skills.
Key Learning points
“AgriTech does not have to be complicated or expensive. Nowadays off-the-shelf hobbyist hardware solutions are more than sufficient to address many on-farm challenges, and much has been done by manufacturers to make it simple and easy to connect, program and implement without much prior technical knowledge.”– Edrean Ernst