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.


Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

Updated 26 February 2020

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

  • Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s
  • Joe Biden: He (Sanders) seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America

WASHINGTON: Bernie Sanders’ past praise of communist regimes like Cuba and the Soviet Union has come back to haunt him, his rivals for the Democratic White House nomination seeking to paint the frontrunner as a friend of left-wing dictators.
Fellow Democratic hopefuls Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s as evidence he is a threat to the US democratic and capitalist system.
Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” was pressed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday about positive comments he made three decades ago about communist states, particularly his statement that Castro had vastly improved education and health care in Cuba.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” the 78-year-old politician said.
“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?“
Biden, who Sanders has edged out as the 2020 Democratic frontrunner, fired back:
“Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ comments on Fidel Castro are a part of a larger pattern throughout his life to embrace autocratic leaders and governments across the globe,” the centrist former vice president said in a statement.
“He seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America.”
Buttigieg compared Sanders to President Donald Trump who he said has “cozied up to dictators,” adding the country needs a leader “who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad.”
With Sanders in pole position heading into South Carolina’s primary this weekend, the controversy offers his rivals a precious chance to halt his momentum when they clash on the debate stage later on Tuesday.
Sanders’ alignment with the far left in US politics has always left him vulnerable to attack; Trump and other Republicans have branded him a “communist.”
But his Cuba comments have come to the forefront in the fight for voter support in Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population strongly opposed to Castro’s regime and holding substantial political sway in the southern state.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, targeted that electorate as he tweeted that Castro “left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.”
“But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders’ denies any support for dictators. Critics say his record suggests otherwise.
As mayor of the small city of Burlington, Vermont, he visited Nicaragua in 1985 and afterward hailed Daniel Ortega’s revolution against the Central American country’s landowner elite.
That was a view commonly held among the American left, especially as the administration of Ronald Reagan supported the right-wing Nicaraguan Contra fighters accused of numerous terror-like atrocities.
In 1988 Sanders visited Russia seeking to establish a sister-city pact with Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow.
It was hardly unique: there were several dozen US-USSR sister city relationships at the time, according to Sister Cities International.
Upon his return, Sanders applauded Russian gains in health care, while adding they were 10 years behind the United States.
He said his hosts were friendly and spoke honestly about problems, especially in housing and struggling industries.
He offered no praise of the government and communist system, and noted Russians very much liked Reagan, who had just days earlier held a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which Sanders called “a major step forward for humanity.”
Likewise after visiting Cuba in 1989, Sanders praised its achievements in education and health care, calling Castro’s revolution “profound,” but also noting the lack of political freedoms.
“The question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society,” he said at the time, according to the Rutland Daily Herald.
Sanders’ position echoes that of president Barack Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, with Biden as his vice president.
Obama said on a landmark 2016 Havana visit that the government “should be congratulated” for its achievements in education and health care — while criticizing its human rights violations and communist-rooted economy which he said was “not working.”
Sanders told “60 Minutes” that his support for certain achievements in communist countries did not make him a friend of repressive leaders.
“I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator,” he said, referring to Trump’s friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Whether that carries with Cuban voters in Florida remains an open question.