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.


Bosnia Muslims mourn their dead 25 years after Srebrenica massacre

Updated 11 min 16 sec ago

Bosnia Muslims mourn their dead 25 years after Srebrenica massacre

  • At 1100 GMT, a ceremony laying to rest the remains of nine victims identified over the past year began at the memorial cemetery in Potocari
  • On July 11, 1995, after capturing the ill-fated town, Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in a few days

SREBRENICA: Bosnian Muslims began marking the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre on Saturday, the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II, with the memorial ceremony sharply reduced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Proceedings got underway in the morning with many mourners braving the tighter restrictions put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.
At 1100 GMT, a ceremony laying to rest the remains of nine victims identified over the past year began at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, a village just outside Srebrenica that served as the base for the UN protection force during the conflict.
On July 11, 1995, after capturing the ill-fated town, Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in a few days.
Sehad Hasanovic, 27, has a two-year-old daughter — the same age he was when he lost his father in the violence.
“It’s difficult when you see someone calling their father and you don’t have one,” Hasanovic said in tears, not dissuaded from attending the commemorations in spite of the virus.
His father, Semso, “left to go into the forest and never returned. Only a few bones have been found,” said Hasanovic.
Like his brother Sefik and father Sevko, Semso was killed when Bosnian Serb troops led by Ratko Mladic entered the Srebrenica enclave before systematically massacring Bosnian men and adolescents.
“The husbands of my four sisters were killed,” said Ifeta Hasanovic, 48, whose husband Hasib was one of the nine victims whose remains have been identified since July 2019.
“My brother was killed, so was his son. My mother-in-law lost another son as well as her husband.”
The episode — labelled as genocide by two international courts — came at the end of a 1992-1995 war between Bosnia’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs that claimed some 100,000 lives.
So far, the remains of nearly 6,900 victims have been found and identified from more than 80 mass graves.
Bosnian Serb wartime military chief general Ratko Mladic, still revered as a hero by many Serbs, was sentenced to life in prison by a UN court in 2017 over war crimes including the Srebrenica genocide. He is awaiting the decision on his appeal.
Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb wartime political leader, was also sentenced to life in prison in The Hague.
The Srebrenica massacre is the only episode of the Bosnian conflict to be described as genocide by the international community.
And while for Bosnian Muslims recognizing the scale of the atrocity is a necessity for lasting peace, for most Serbs — leaders and laypeople in both Bosnia and Serbia — the use of the word genocide remains unacceptable.
In the run-up to the anniversary, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described Srebrenica as “something that we should not and cannot be proud of,” but he has never publicly uttered the word “genocide.”
Several thousand Serbs and Muslims live side by side in impoverished Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia with just a few shops in its center.
On Friday, the town’s Serbian mayor Mladen Grujicic — who was elected in 2016 after a campaign based on genocide denial — said that “there is new evidence every day that denies the current presentation of everything that has happened.”
Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik has also described the massacre as a “myth.”
But on Friday, the Muslim member of Bosnia’s joint presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, said: “We will tirelessly insist on the truth, on justice and on the need to try all those who have committed this crime.”
“We will fight against those who deny the genocide and glorify its perpetrators,” he said at the memorial center where he attended a collective prayer.
In order to avoid large crowds on Saturday, organizers have invited people to visit the memorial center over the whole month of July.
A number of different exhibitions are on display, including paintings by Bosnian artist Safet Zec.
Another installation, entitled “Why Aren’t You Here?” by US-Bosnian artist Aida Sehovic, comprises more than 8,000 cups of coffee spread out on the cemetery’s lawn.
“We still haven’t answered the question why they are no longer here,” she told AFP.
“How could this have happened in the heart of Europe, that people were killed in such a terrible way in a UN protected area? Not to mention the fact that the genocide is still being denied.”