An innovative mobile laboratory facility has been launched to address the plight of small and medium enterprises within the agricultural sector. This must come as a timely boost as agriculture has been identified as one of the sectors of the economy that can help create more job opportunities as well as contribute to the country’s GDP.
The initiative is a product of the collaboration between The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Mobile Agricultural Skills and Development Training (MASDT). The latter is a non-profit company that provides support to the small and medium agricultural-based enterprises.
The facility is designed to be both accessible and affordable and will also provide mobile food safety testing service for commercial and small rural-based farmers. Most farmers, particularly small scale and emerging rural, face a myriad of challenges such as poor and unreliable transport system, lack of access to markets and other critical technical expertise that can help grow their enterprises. It is hoped the launch of this facility would substantially alleviate the challenges farmers face regarding the quality of their produce.
Inocent Makuwaza, acting chief executive of MASDT expanded on the significance of the initiative: “Many farmers (commercial and small-scale) in South Africa’s rural areas battle with access to food safety testing facilities for their farm produce. This is mainly because most of the farms are located far from laboratories and the transport of samples to these facilities are challenging.
The process of handling and transporting samples also compromises the quality of the samples. This challenge results in the farmers losing out on lucrative export opportunities because they cannot provide the required food safety proofs required by rest of the supply chain.”
The facility is envisaged to, among others; perform testing for pathogens, pesticides residue, mycotoxins and heavy metals as well as offer customised laboratory information management system with digitised and customised mobile testing equipment that produces outcomes in real time on site.
In addition, the mobile laboratory initiative has the potential to be scaled up and can be replicated across the country and the region. It is hoped that the potential of the new project will attract more investment from both public and private funders.
CSIR Food Safety Programme Manager, Dr Dharmarai Naicker, also welcomed the initiative. She said if sufficient funding could be mobilised the small, medium and micro enterprises in the country would be able to sell their agricultural products to retail and other established processing facilities at higher mark up because their products would have complied with the required food safety standards.
Said Naicker: “Increased investment funding in this area would provide small, medium and micro enterprises in South Africa with an opportunity to valorise their agricultural products, offering products for sale to retailers and larger processing facilities at a premium with the quality assurance of having met food safety standards. Beyond the current proposal, mobile food safety testing laboratories situated at every municipality will help to curb the risk of foodborne illnesses that the country has experienced along some food safety value chains.”
The Department of Science and Innovation jointly funded the feasibility study of the mobile laboratory concept. Plans are afoot to enhance the mobile facility prototype over a three years period. It is anticipated that accreditation for testing will be secured and that the project will be financially sustainable and will also target the agricultural sector in clearly defined areas.