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Big Data And Smart Farmers For Africa’s Agricultural Transformation

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Why data could be the deciding factor in Africa’s agricultural transformation.

The world has a palm oil problem.

It’s a global, billion-dollar industry and its end result is irreversible environmental damage, ranging from deforestation and fires, to the loss of species such as tigers, pygmy elephants and orangutans.

Palm oil is used in 50% of the products we buy (think bread, shampoo, soaps and even chocolate) due to the fact that it is the highest-yielding vegetable oil crop.

Yet, in a country like Uganda, where 80% of the population is involved in agriculture as a way of life, many Ugandans farm oil palm on small plots, barely making a living.

“The use of data for purposes of precision agricultural systems is being used around the world to optimize farms, from anticipating natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, to predicting the best time to harvest crops, to anticipating outbreaks of pests and disease before they impact the produce,” says AgriSA’s Janse Rabie. “In an era of ever-increasing challenges with respect to ensuring food security, both locally and elsewhere in Africa, the application of data and smart farming practices is becoming ever more important.”

SAP Rural Sourcing Management is a cloud-based system used by Barry Callebaut, among the world’s largest sustainable cocoa producers. But what does fair trade chocolate have to do with Uganda’s problematic, smallholder farm life? And how can data change the palm oil trade so the way in which we farm this much-used resource becomes more ethically-focussed and transparent?

READ MORE: ‘2020 to 2030 Will Be The Decade Of Agri-Tech’

Back in 2009, SAP built a prototype for small-scale farmers across Africa using funding from the German government.

“We spent a long time doing ethnographic research, getting right on the ground with small-scale farmers in West Africa to understand how they live and what challenges are. We wanted to find out what would be useful to them and the cooperatives to which many of us didn’t belong,” explains Simon Carpenter, SAP Africa’s Chief Technology Advisor.

Simon Carpenter. Photo provided.

The system was bought by Callebaut so they could provide it to their small-scale (but globally situated) growers as well as the co-ops they deal with – be it cocoa, vanilla or even palm oil micro farmers – a way to collaborate in real-time.

This is where the Kalangala Oil Palm Growers Trust (KOPGT) comes in. The farming collective acts as a hub, connecting smallholder farmers to government services and local agricultural companies. And now, the GIZ – a German development agency that provides services in the field of international development cooperation – is working closely with the Ugandan government to roll out this solution to over 2,000 farmers.

“If we can start to gather data from small-scale farmers on how they farm and where they’re farming, we can do a couple of things: firstly, we can start to build a history and an identity for that small-scale farmer, which makes it easier for either the government or the private sector to extend credit to them so they can start to scale their farms. It also informs government in terms of who is growing what and where which starts to inform future government policy. Do they need agronomists? Are they growing the right crops for their kind of economy? Once you’ve started to generate this data, you can do some amazing things with it,” adds Carpenter.

Farming of the future

In many instances, lack of information has a direct impact on African smallholder farmers’ outputs and, by effect, livelihoods. According to new research, only 5% of cultivated land in Africa makes use of irrigation compared to 38% in Asia.

Farmers today are experimenting with new processes and production methods. From big data to biotechnology, sensors, drones, autonomous systems and more, the technologies likely to make the most difference in agri-tech are tools and equipment that can capture and interpret data.

Benji Meltzer is the co-founder of Aerobotics, a South African agri-tech startup that has developed an early warning smart scouting platform that could help farmers identify potential pest and disease issues in tree crops. With over 500 farmers already signed up on the platform across 11 countries, they’ve built an end-to-end farm monitoring solution.

Benji Meltzer. Photo provided.

“As farming conditions become more difficult, farmers have more reason to optimize and farm more precisely. Our data can be used to make more efficient use of resources, including water and chemicals, by applying corrective action in a data-driven manner (rather than blanket application across the farm) and as a result focusing on treatment. Farmers don’t have tools to effectively manage their resources and farms and are wasting both time and money through inefficiencies. The lack of information, insights and data-driven decisions on the ground can lead to losses and reduced yields,” explains Meltzer.

“We are able to identify individual trees and help growers pinpoint those that are under stress. This means farmers can focus their attention on the areas that matter, and as a result farm by exception and driven by data, rather than by walking blindly through the field,” he says. “We are able to monitor pest and diseases close to real time through our drone imagery (which is processed within a few days) and in-field scouting tools which enables farmers to monitor by exception.”

Aerobotics helps farmers take advantage of a portion of this data by allowing them to drive decisions from using proprietary machine-learning algorithms. What’s interesting is all of their products are currently hosted in the cloud, where they use Amazon Web Services (AWS) to scale their applications.

“We specifically use AWS for cloud storage (to store raw and processed imagery), cloud compute (to process huge amounts of data and extract insights), database storage and to serve our applications. Working with AWS to help farmers grow healthier crops is a perfect example of the way in which technology transforms traditional industries, leading to better livelihood conditions. Africa can be a harsh environment for farming. Crops are constantly under threat from problems such as disease, pests, and drought. Using the AWS cloud, we are bringing compute, data analytics, and other advanced technologies to help farmers grow healthier crops, despite the harsh conditions.”

Like others, Meltzer believes that cloud has the potential to solve many problems in almost any industry and application. Agriculture is no different, whether it’s irrigation systems, fertilization, or disease and pest control, compute and data analysis capabilities the cloud offers transform these processes to make farming of the future easier.

The use of drone technology, along with data harvesting, has been incredibly effective for South African macadamia growers. At Sutton Crest citrus farm in Mpumalanga in South Africa, for example, they managed to increase nut production with more detailed soil analysis, GPS data and probes.

Macadamia nut trees require different nutrients from one phenological stage to another, so by understanding what to add to fertilizer and when, the farmers can prevent early nut drop – something which lowers overall yield – and save water usage at the same time.

‘Crowd-farming’ cows?

From using geo-spatial analysis to farm sugarcane in Swaziland to Fresh Direct, a Nigerian startup which repurposes old shipping containers to grow crops in the densely-populated Abuja capital; to Livestock Wealth’s Ntuthuko Shezi who is “crowd-farming” cows in South Africa as an entry point to the financial services industry, the time is now for African agri-tech.

And it’s far more than self-driving ploughs or robotic tools – the value lies in big data and its applications. MySmartFarm is another locally-developed all-in-one farming tool hosted in the cloud. It analyzes farm data to give real-time insights.

According to a status report from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Africa’s food system requires an agricultural transformation focused on more than just production. It needs to encompass the entire food system. It could explain why, nearly eight years ago, John Deere, the agricultural equipment manufacturer, fitted their tractors with global-positioning-system (GPS) sensors. It seemed revolutionary at the time, but this addition made it possible to stop farmers missing out patches as they shuttled up and down fields or covering the same ground twice – a common problem with an easy solve involving data.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has created standards for ethical and sustainable palm oil production which certifies qualified growers and processors. Currently, around 20% of the palm oil across the globe is certified by RSPO but with smarter farming methods, this number will surely increase.

The farm, like the future, is not what it used to be.

– Tiana Cline

Arts

Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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Economy

What A Failed Johannesburg Project Tells Us About Mega Cities In Africa

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Six years ago a major development was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much fanfare, expectation and media hype.

Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which it quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media.

Our research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise. We also wanted to find out how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

We found that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

Conflicting interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitised suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5 000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with, and complemented, Johanneburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, New Cairo in Egypt, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been touted by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as “smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities. – The Conversation

-Ricardo Reboredo; PhD Candidate in Geography, Trinity College Dublin

-Frances Brill; Research fellow, UCL

The Conversation

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4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

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Chris Pilgrim, the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, on the potential game-changers in higher education on the continent.


It is to a verdant academic campus in Ghana   that Chris Pilgrim will be packing his bags from the dunes of Dubai. As the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group (TAG) West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, Pilgrim will provide students across emerging markets access to post-secondary and executive education.

TAG currently owns and operates Lancaster University’s campus in Ghana, Curtin University’s Dubai campus, and South Africa-based ABN Training in partnership with the Australian Institute of Management in Western Australia.

Pilgrim, who has helped develop TAG’s expansion in Africa and has over 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, spoke to FORBES AFRICA about skills-building, STEM and job creation:

READ MORE | Education Quality and the Youth Skills Gap Are Marring Progress in Africa

1. Are more universities looking to set up here?

A. With over half a million African students studying abroad annually, the continent has the highest outbound student ratio (number of outbound tertiary students/total number of tertiary students) in the world. Along with this annual migration of students comes capital flight, increased brain drain, and a hesitancy to build further world-class higher education capacity on the continent.

TAG partners with globally top-ranked universities to provide the highest quality of higher education in emerging market nations, thereby reversing, albeit modestly, the flow of students.

Our campus in Ghana, in partnership with Lancaster University (ranked sixth in the UK), provides world-class higher education capacity for West Africans, and it has seen students from other countries, including outside of Africa, take up enrolment.

TAG’s Lancaster University Ghana is the only comprehensive UK university campus in mainland Africa, and while TAG is undertaking steps to open similar branch campuses in other African countries, other investors and top-ranked universities have not moved to open campuses in the region.


Chris Pilgrim, the CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana.

2. How can Africa build skills, capacity and create more jobs?

A. While there has been a modest growth of employment in the formal job sector in some countries, many of Africa’s youth are more likely today to take up work in the informal sectors and in family enterprises.

Africa, as a region, has the largest youth population in the world, and with over 11 million young people expected to enter the job market each year, its economies are stretched to productively absorb Africa’s greatest asset – this youth population.

While the continent’s education capacities and output are integral to leveraging this youth population into a potential demographic dividend, investments, both private and public, into relevant higher education capacities, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capacity, are limited.

In the long-term, addressing the underlying causes of unemployment and skills-gap lies in increasing enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on STEM, thus enabling graduates to participate in the new economies and globalization emerging with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to creating the jobs of the future.

3. What is the increasing role of STEM programs?

A. While the vital importance of STEM education to infrastructure development, healthcare, energy security, agriculture, and the environment are well cited over the past decade, the role of STEM and digital skills in preparing for 4IR are potential game-changers.

READ MORE | Kenyan Approach Holds Promise for Boosting Early Childhood Education

African nations need to develop “future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in 4IR” (Source: WEF 2017 The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa).

Lancaster University Ghana has been delivering relevant computer science curriculum since its inception, and is set to launch programs in engineering this year, followed by additional programs in STEM disciplines.

4. How are you creating future leaders?

A. TAG Ghana works closely with Lancaster University to assure that our students receive an education that is relevant both locally, and in the global context. We work closely with industry and the community to understand their needs so our graduates are employment-ready.

Interviewed by Methil Renuka

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