West Africa boot camp seeks artificial intelligence fix for climate-hit farmers

Students take part in an AI programming course at the Dakar Institute of Technology in Dakar, Senegal. on November 5, 2019. (Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nellie Peyton)
Updated 17 November 2019

West Africa boot camp seeks artificial intelligence fix for climate-hit farmers

  • With AI, data can be processed to show exactly when and where farmers should add water or fertilizer, and help strengthen their understanding of crop losses

DAKAR: Data analyst Fabrice Sonzahi enrolled in a course on artificial intelligence (AI) in Dakar, hoping to help struggling farmers improve crop yields in his home country of Ivory Coast.

He is part of an inaugural batch of students at a new AI programming school in Senegal, one of the first in West Africa.

Its mission is to train local people in using data to solve pressing issues like the impact of climate change on crops.

The Dakar Institute of Technology (DIT), which opened in September, is running its first 10-week boot camp with nine students in partnership with French AI school VIVADATA.

“I am convinced that by analyzing data we can give (farmers) better solutions,” said Sonzahi, 30.

He plans to bring his AI skills to Ivorian startup ATA Solution, which advises farmers on how to maximize scarce resources like land and water.

The company already collects data such as soil PH, temperature and moisture levels, said Sonzahi, who works with the startup as an analyst.

With AI, that data could be processed to show exactly when and where farmers should add water or fertilizer, and help strengthen their understanding of crop losses, he said.

Data scientists across the continent are beginning to experiment with machine learning as a tool to help farmers cope with increasingly erratic weather, from modeling the fastest route to market, to detecting problems in fields with drones.

In Cameroon, a new mobile phone app called Agrix Tech allows farmers to photograph a leaf affected by blight and then, using AI, diagnoses the problem and recommends treatment.

A project launched in Kenya this year also uses AI to crunch big data and give smallholder farmers recommendations such as when to plant, in a bid to avert food shortages, according to French technology firm Capgemini.

But knowledge of AI and training opportunities are slim, especially in West Africa where fixes for crop failure are sorely needed, said DIT director Nicolas Poussielgue.

West African countries are among those hardest-hit by climate change, according to scientists, with populations that depend largely on agriculture losing their livelihoods due to worsening floods and droughts.

“For models of climate change, the basic calculations use physics. Now you can add AI, which lets you have better results to know what is going to happen and where,” said Poussielgue.

DIT plans to launch a bachelor’s degree in big data and a master’s in AI in 2020, each with 25 students, he added.

Not all the boot camp participants are focused on agriculture, but it is one of the key areas in which AI has the potential to make a difference in West Africa, besides health and education, he said.

“The idea of the school is to have students who will create their own startups and products,” said Poussielgue. 

Decoder

Agrix Tech app

The Agrix Tech mobile phone app allows farmers to photograph a leaf affected by blight and then, using AI, diagnoses the problem and recommends treatment.


Malaysia’s ruling party makes fresh push for Anwar to take over as PM

Updated 23 min 15 sec ago

Malaysia’s ruling party makes fresh push for Anwar to take over as PM

  • Mahathir Mohamad promised to hand over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim soon after laying the groundwork for a new administration
  • But says he may need more time to repair the damage left by the scandal-tainted government of his predecessor

MALACCA, Malaysia: Leaders of Malaysia’s ruling party on Sunday renewed a push for Anwar Ibrahim to lead the country, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad dithers on the timing of the planned power transition he had promised to his former rival-turned-ally.
Mahathir, elected to power in May 2018, had promised to hand over the reins to Anwar, 72, soon after laying the groundwork for a new administration.
But Mahathir has said he may need more time to repair the damage left by the scandal-tainted government of his predecessor, Najib Razak, while Anwar grapples with deep-seated factionalism within his own People’s Justice Party (PKR), the largest member of the ruling coalition.
“As far as I am concerned there has been clarity (that it will happen), except for the time,” Anwar told a news conference after PKR’s annual congress in Malacca, about 150 km from the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
“But let us work out an acceptable formula so that the transition is smooth and orderly.”
Hundreds of delegates were seen holding “Anwar PM-8” placards at Sunday’s congress, a year after he was elected the party’s president. PKR was formed 20 years ago to carry on Anwar’s reform agenda, after he was first jailed on what he has said were trumped-up charges of corruption and sodomy.
Anwar, who would be the country’s eighth premier should he take power, has been jailed twice, receiving a second sodomy conviction in 2015. He was granted a royal pardon last May.
Last week, Anwar denied fresh allegations that he had sexually assaulted a former male aide, describing the accusation as “politics at its worst.”
“This is not an ordinary annual conference. It is an important platform for Anwar to legitimize his position as the successor to Mahathir,” said Adib Zalkapli, a Malaysia director with political risk consultancy Bower Group Asia.
“He won the party leadership last year. This year, Anwar has to show that he is still in control of the party.”
But on Saturday, Anwar’s party deputy and perceived rival, Azmin Ali, led a walkout after delegates hit out at the president’s critics for allegedly trying to destabilize the party and challenge Anwar.
Azmin denied it was a boycott of the three-day meeting, insisting that their message was for the party to focus on governance and not be hung up on the power transition.
“When the people voted us in, the people wanted us to reform ... that should be the focus of the new government,” Azmin told reporters.