Ongoing loadshedding prompts a rethink of the Firth Group’s energy supply

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It’s no lie that the ongoing loadshedding being experienced in South Africa continues to present many industries with multiple sets of challenges. For many farmers, there’s often the hope that loadshedding will one day just stop—meaning that a significant investment in alternative energy supply won’t be necessary. To be honest (and pragmatic with one’s expectations) it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is not going to happen anytime soon. As such, it’s inevitable that farmers from all over South Africa are being forced by circumstance, to weigh up their energy supply options.

One doesn’t have to look too far, nor dig too deep to discover just how much of an impact loadshedding is having on the agricultural sector. The online publication Engineering News reports that loadshedding poses a long-term risk to the agricultural sector—this holds serious implications for food security and social stability. In this fairly recent (12 August 2022) article,[1] several interesting facts are reported—namely, that:
  • Industry body Agri SA explains that the extended period of level six loadshedding threatens the viability of the sector while an escalation to level seven and higher would be catastrophic and pose a risk to the country’s national security.
  • Loadshedding contributes to inflation and may result in farmers planting less owing to rising costs and disruption in planting schedules.
  • Loadshedding increases the cost of production for farmers at a time when South Africans are facing further food price increases and are under unprecedented economic pressure.
In particular, what the Firth Group finds most relevant to its current set of challenges being faced, concurs 100% with the following fact—as stated in the article:
  • Electricity is central to modern farming practices and the recent increase in load-shedding has seriously disrupted farming operations. Pumping stations, irrigation, cooling and other systems all depend on power supply.
  • Farmers are already reporting huge losses as processing machinery, irrigation equipment and other machinery are damaged and come to a standstill owing to power outages. With essential systems unavailable during the day, farm workers are required to work after hours. Overtime wages increase production costs which are already increasing.
Presently, at the Firth Group, the primary challenge is focused on the damage caused by loadshedding and how to minimise future ongoing damage to the many water pumps needed for irrigation—in particular, for the pecan orchards at the Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts business division. It would also seem is if there is no alternative option but to go the solar route in the long-run.

Threat to water pumps the greatest

One of the most concerning primary issues with loadshedding, is that one cannot pump water to the pecan nut trees. This is a serious issue, as the trees will rapidly experience water stress and start to get rid of their ‘fruits’ (i.e. pecan nuts) when the trees do not receive enough water. Basically, how this works, is that the tree ‘recognises’ that it is experiencing a shortage of water. This prompts the tree to default towards self-preservation mode by shedding its own fruit—knowing that more fruit can always be produced again, in a next season, when there’s more water available. As soon as this natural process [Ed. also known as ‘nut drop’ or ‘crop drop’] activates, the pecan nuts are discarded by the tree. As one would correctly predict, this can be catastrophic for a pecan farmer as it would lead to the entire harvest being a failure. For context: the Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts business division of the Firth Group requires about 370-thousand litres of water per hour.

water pump
A well-serviced fully working water-pump plus a fresh water supply remain vital for successful farming. Loadshedding remains a constant and very severe threat to the Firth Group’s farms, especially at its Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts division.

In order to prevent this kind of ‘water stress’ from actually happening, Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts has been forced to invest in a large 180Kw diesel-generator. The diesel-generator provides the necessary power (i.e. energy) to the water pumps, which require about 110 kW to run properly and effectively. This in turn, leads to a diesel-fuel cost of about R820 per hour—to run the generator. This adds significantly to the running costs—whilst also incurring some degree of damage to the trees because it is not an ideal solution to run the watering operation this way in the long-term.

Damage to electronic systems

When it comes to certain electronic systems, loadshedding can (and does) oftentimes cause absolute havoc. At the Firth Group, many of the security systems (including alarms, cameras etc.) have developed constant issues whenever a loadshedding spell has occurred. This leads to frustrating delays and oftentimes, many headaches for the farm workers too: particularly when the time-and-attendance ‘clocking’ systems do not register times correctly when suddenly being ‘switched off’ unexpectedly.

Many of the farms’ other electric devices and appliances also suffer considerable damage from the unstable power supply. Without any doubt, loadshedding has proven to drastically reduce the lifespan of many appliances (e.g. fridges and freezers are a perfect case in point).

Supply chain disruptions

The various Firth Group farming divisions have also, on several occasions, suffered from the great side-effect of loadshedding: fuel shortages. This phenomenon plays itself out when residents from the local townships and informal residential areas are impacted by loadshedding (which usually leads to water shortages as well). These communities’ collective frustrations snowball into mass action, which in turn leads to road-blockades of fuel trucks—the end result being a chain-reaction that causes a significant disruption to the fuel supply chain, particularly in the local Wolmaransstad region.

Solar power

At the moment, the business is exploring the possibility of converting to a more robust and lasting solar-based energy solution for its water-pumped irrigation system. Such a solution may either be a 100% off-the-grid system, or a 50% off-the-grid system (meaning that we can run 50% off-the-grid during the day and 100% off-the-grid during the day and night). Preliminary research and costing exercises proves that this will most definitely be an expensive endeavour. More work needs to be done in this regard—the research is ongoing for now [ed. as at time of writing of this article]. In this recent Farmers Weekly article[2] reference is made to emerging energy-storage technology that offers an optimal solution to loadshedding challenges, particularly when coupled with renewables such as solar power. However, until fairly recently the price of batteries has been prohibitive, especially for mid-sized commercial farms. The Firth Group remains hopeful that prices of large-scale battery farms will soon become a viable option for investment—hopefully sooner than later too.

Other areas of the farming business—Extra unnecessary costs too

During loadshedding hours, where there is no inverter battery backup system installed, staff productivity is also lost since nobody can use the Internet or run the various tools and machines that require a standard electricity supply. As such, the various business divisions have been forced once again, to purchase additional small-scale generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS systems) …all of which, contribute significantly to the overall running costs of the business. This in turn leads to an inevitable reduction in earnings margins and farming profitability in the final analysis.

The farmer is left with no alternative option but to pass on many of these additional costs to the consumer. Group managing director Piet Botma says that, “loadshedding is time and money down the drain, never to be recovered again.”

For this reason, Piet Botma and his team continue to persevere during the current electricity-supply crises in South Africa. “We have no option but to find creative and workable ways of making this work best for us” says Botma, positively emphasising that “a boer will always ‘maak ‘n plan’ in the end.” — (Ed. implied translation/meaning: “A farmer will always make a plan that triumphs in the end.”)

Gallery

In this gallery, the reader is invited to view an assortment of illustrative photos of the various mobile and fixed water-pump sites scattered across the Firth Group’s various farms. The scale and complexity of the energy supply challenges might not seem apparent in these photos, but it is hoped that this article speaks for these photos—loud and clearly. 

Co-authors: Jan Botma & Adrian Baillie-Stewart

Adrian Baillie-Stewart
Adrian Baillie-Stewart

On a part-time basis, Adrian serves as lead digital communications consultant for the Firth Group of farms. This includes Hillcrest Game Estates, Firth Red Brangus, Firth Wagyu, Maquassi Spruit Pecan Nuts and Highlands Cycads. A communications specialist at Content Strategics (Pty) Ltd., Adrian helps small to medium enterprises achieve their primary operational goals by maximising the commercial impact of their media content published across multiple online digital platforms.

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Aderjan (Jan) Jacobus Botma

Jan Botma was born and raised on a farm near Wolmaransstad. He studied law at the North-West University and worked as a real estate agent, before shifting to business and farm management at the Firth Group. Jan also owns and manages a small wood-processing start-up business. In his spare time, Jan teaches financial education to local community members and advocates the world’s transition to sustainable renewable energy usage.