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.


New Delhi accused of ‘hate-mongering’ over virus

Updated 13 August 2020

New Delhi accused of ‘hate-mongering’ over virus

  • Despite a prominent temple in India becoming a disease hotspot, there has been no public uproar, as was the case when the Tablighi Jamaat was accused of spreading the disease earlier this year

NEW DELHI: Muslim groups and political analysts have accused the Indian government of double standards after a Hindu temple in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh said over 700 of its members had tested positive for coronavirus.

The accusation follows claims that the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), a Muslim missionary group, were “super spreaders” after a New Delhi gathering in March.

“Our political class has accepted the hegemony of Hindu majoritarianism uncritically, and that has been the guiding principle in dealing with this health crisis. Taking an anti-Muslim stance characterizes the new normal,” said Hilal Ahmad of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

The Lord Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati said on Sunday that three people had died from the disease, including a head priest.

“Of the 743 infected, about 402 people have recovered, while
338 people are undergoing treatment in care facilities,” said Anil Kumar Singhal, the temple’s executive officer.

The temple reopened after months of lockdown on June 11 following “requests from devotees,” he added, while entry was monitored through “strict measures.”

However, despite the prominent temple becoming a disease hotspot, there has been no public uproar, as was the case when the TJ was accused of spreading the disease earlier this year.

At the time, the government had evacuated over 2,300 people and placed 1,800 in quarantine. Media reports said more than 25,000 people who had come in contact with the missionary group had been quarantined across India.

The government alleges that the TJ hosted gatherings of thousands of people from across India and abroad despite the coronavirus threat.

However, some believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is being “divisive” in its approach.

“Coronavirus in India is being used by hate-mongers to divide people in the name of religion,” said Shahid Ali, a TJ lawyer.

He added that when coronavirus cases were detected among the TJ group, both the media and a section of the ruling class “began propagating hate against Muslims.”

“As a result, common people started sidelining and threatening Muslims. Now, when there are so many coronavirus cases in Hindu places of worship, the media is silent. Coronavirus does not have a religion, but India gave coronavirus a religion,” he said.

However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the comparison is misplaced and maintained its stance that the TJ was the “perpetrator” of the virus, while the Hindus in Tirupati are “victims.”

“When the TJ incident happened, there were very few coronavirus cases. The TJ demonstrated they were deviants violating lockdown. They intentionally kept everything under wraps,” said BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma.

“We should stop politicizing the health issue,” he added.

“Coronavirus cases in India have reached 2 million, and those in temples or other places of worship are victims, not perpetrators. We should stop politicizing issues of health. These decisions, like any other decisions of government, are not taken on communal lines.”

However, some have disagreed and accused the authorities of being “anti-science” and stigmatizing Muslims.

“The government is anti-science and should have learned a lesson from the TJ incident and stopped religious gatherings. But now we know that the government and media were working with a particular agenda – they just wanted to victimize Muslims,” said Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the New Delhi-based Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum.

Bhatti raised the issue of a recent religious event in the city of Ayodhya, where the Indian prime minister launched the construction on a Hindu temple, in “a total disregard for anti-virus measures and protocols.”

He added: “If he does not follow norms, then how can he dare question others? Modi is a prisoner of his own politics.”