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Is This Technology the Answer to World Hunger?

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Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and has the potential to become an agricultural hub by applying agri-tech and futurist thinking. Lessons from a Canadian food economy.


“Our food system is broken.” And Africa is no exception.“Just consider that 30 percent of all food produced doesn’t make it to the plate. Much of it ends up in landfills where it creates methane, a greenhouse gas.”

These were the words by Barbara Swartzentruber, the Executive Director of Strategy, Innovation and Intergovernmental Relations at the City of Guelph, west of downtown Toronto in Canada, to a range of journalists in a bid to encourage foreign direct investment for the city’s visionary smart city plan.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)”.

To address these challenges, the entire design and food production system needs to be rethought and reimagined.

Thought needs to be given to what we put on our plates, to how we produce it and to how we dispose of it etc., reckons Swartzentruber.

Failure to do so will have dire consequences for the nine billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050, she adds. In response, Guelph-Wellington, the city in Canada I am visiting, which has a long history of agricultural excellence, is re-imagining its food system.

Many of the discoveries and solutions it is applying could be adopted and repurposed in Africa, which has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and the potential to become a burgeoning agricultural hub of the future.

Circular food economies

Guelph-Wellington has started work to be among the world’s first circular food economies by 2025. Its ambitious plan will see a system where everyone has access to nutritious food, nothing is wasted and the impact on its own environment is minimal, reveals Swartzentruber.

It is proposing a 50x50x50 model, in which access to affordable, nutritious food is increased by 50%, 50 new circular businesses and collaboration opportunities are created and economic revenues are increased by 50% by reducing and recognizing food waste,she adds.

To achieve this, food experts, academics, social innovators, farmers, community partners and entrepreneurs will collaborate to tackle Guelph-Wellington’s most complex food challenges using big data and the latest technologies.

Biomaterials

One of these academics is Professor Amar Mohanty, Director of the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) and Premier’s Research Chair in Biomaterials & Transportation at the University of Guelph. Mohanty, who comes from India, is working with plant biologists,chemists and engineers to reuse waste, investigate and commercialize biomaterial. His passion stems from a desire to save the environment, the ebullient scientist tells FORBES AFRICA.

His zeal to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases, which he calls ‘slow poison’, is already bearing fruit.

Together with Toronto-based coffee roaster Club Coffee, the BDDC created the world’s first fully-compostable coffee pods, which became available in Canada in 2016.

To address the scourge plastic straws are having on rivers and oceans, Mohanty says his department is currently testing a 100% compostable straw made with biodegradable plastics.

The BDDC is also working with the likes of Volkswagen, Ford and Tesla to turn plant materials such as wheat, soy and corn into alternatives to petroleum-based sources for car parts. In December, together with one of the car manufacturers, it is launching these products.

Controlled environment systems

A few blocks away on the same campus, Professor Mike Dixon of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) and his team are hard at work creating controlled environment plant production.

The technology will be used to feed people living in harsh environments, astronauts traveling to Mars, to growing plants on the moon, to improving the medicinal components of plants such as cannabis, to developing new cancer therapies, says Dixon.


Mike Dixon of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility. Picture: Supplied

With confidence, Dixon reckons, provided he gets funding,that he will send the first plants to the moon in 2019. True to his Scottish blood and love for single malt whiskey, the plants will be barley.

The laboratory where Dixon and his team of researchers work uses new attributes of light-emitting diode (LED) lights to promote production of various plant commodities. For example, says Dixon, “researchers have learned that exposing lettuce to different LED light changes metabolic compounds that influence the color and taste of lettuce and even the medicinal properties of other plants”.

DNA barcoding

Professor Paul Hebert from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph was the first scientist to propose that a short DNA sequence be used to identify species. According to the university, he called the system ‘DNA barcoding’, analogous to how retail products are tagged to allow for quick identification.

“With DNA barcoding, scientists may identify species within hours – and, ultimately, minutes – using all life stages and even fragments of organisms.”

The technology can also be used to eliminate food fraud and ensure that you get what you order and pay for at shops and restaurants.

On its journey to becoming the food basket of the world, Africa has a treasure trove of new ideas to use. The future is in her hands.  

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The Nearly $2 Million Aston Martin Valhalla Is A Gift From The Gods

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Proving, again, there is often truth to rumor, Aston Martin chief executive Andy Palmer confirmed that the previously code-named Aston Martin AM-RB-003 s hypercar will be officially called Valhalla, continuing with the manufacturer’s Norse god naming theme.

“Norse mythology contains such powerful language and rich storytelling it felt only right that the AM-RB 003 should follow the Valkyrie’s theme,” Palmer told reporters.

“For those fortunate enough to own one I’m sure they will recognize and appreciate the name’s connotations of glory and happiness, for there can be few more hallowed places than the driver’s seat of an Aston Martin Valhalla.”

Inside the new Aston Martin Valhalla.
Speed Racer: The dash might be minimal, but the F1-style steering wheel is anything but. ASTON MARTIN

Joining the stunning Valkyrie and extreme Valkyrie AMR Pro, the all-new gift from the gods will compete for bragging rights with the likes of the Ferrari LaFerrari and the McLaren Senna.

As we reported earlier this year, only 500 of the hybrid hypercar will be built, every single one of them clad entirely in carbon fiber.

Aston Martin Valkyrie.
Sibling Rivalry: The Valhalla borrows much of its styling from older brother, the Valkyrie (shown here). ASTON MARTIN

The Valhalla will look much like its bigger brother, the Valkyrie (the rear diffuser and air tunnels appear to be nearly identical). However, it will sport a more traditional mid-engine supercar layout, with high-exit exhausts, a jet-fighter-style canopy, and active aerodynamics and suspension.

It will be powered by an all-new V6 engine that will feature some level of hybridization and turbocharging to aid performance. Total output: 1,000 horsepower. However, that is still just a rumor. We’ll have to wait and see. Also available will be an 8-speed F1-inspired dual-clutch transmission, a limited-slip differential and an e-AWD system.

All new Aston Martin Valhalla
Powerful Beast: The Valhalla’s turbocharged hybrid V-6 is expected to develop 1,000 horsepower.ASTON MARTIN

Aston Martin is targeting a 0-62 mph sprint time of 2.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 220 mph.

If you don’t have the almost $2 million ticket to ride this 200 mph-plus hybrid hypercar, you can see it in the upcoming 007 movie now in production starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. It is set to be one of a trio of Aston Martins to appear in the film. Send me a secure tip.

-Chuck Tannert; Forbes Staff

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How Google Is Using AI To Make Voice Recognition Work For People With Disabilities

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Want to schedule an appointment? Just ask your phone. Need to turn on your bedroom lights? Google Home has you covered.

Now a $49 billion market, voice-activated systems have gained popularity among consumers, thanks to their ability to automate and streamline mundane tasks. But for people with impaired speech,  technologies that rely on voice commands have proved to be far from perfect.

That’s the impetus for Google’s newly formed Project Euphonia, part of the company’s AI for Social Good program. The project team is exploring ways to improve speech recognition for people who are deaf or have neurological conditions such as ALS, stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury.

Google has partnered with nonprofit organizations ALS Therapy Development Institute and ALS Residence Initiative (ALSRI) to collect recorded voice samples from people who have the neurodegenerative disease, one that often leads to severe speech and mobility difficulties.

For those with neurological conditions, voice-activated systems can play a key role in completing everyday tasks and conversing with loved ones, caregivers or colleagues. “You can turn on your lights, your music or communicate with someone. But this only works if the technology can actually recognize your voice and transcribe it,” says Julie Cattiau, a product manager at Google AI.

The company’s speech recognition technology utilizes machine learning algorithms that require extensive data training. “We have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of sentences that people have read—and we use them as examples for the algorithms to learn how to recognize each,” says Cattiau. “But it’s not enough for people with disabilities.”

With Project Euphonia, the team will instead use voice samples from people who have impaired speech in the hope that the underlying system will be trained to understand inarticulate commands.

While the goal is to create technology that is more accessible for people with speech impediments, the end result is still unclear.

“It’s possible that we will have models that work for multiple people with ALS and other medical conditions,” says Cattiau. “It’s also possible that people, even just within ALS, sound too different to have such a machine learning model in place. And in that case, we may need to have a level of personalization so that each person has their own model.”

Google’s speech recognition technology can comprehend virtually any voice command for people without speech impairments, due to the large data set that has been available for training. But some uncertainty exists about how broadly speech technology will be able to understand and act on directives from those who have difficulty speaking. The Project Euphonia team has only a limited number  of voice samples from people with speech impediments, which allows it to focus only on specific-use words and phrases such as “read me a book” or “turn off the lights.”

Though Cattiau’s team has collected tens of thousands of recorded phrases, she says it needs hundreds of thousands more. That’s partly why Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled this project at the company’s annual developer conference in May.

“We are working hard to provide these voice-recognition models to the Google Assistant in the future,” he said, calling on people with slurred and impaired speech to submit their voice samples.

“Impaired speech is a very difficult data set to put together. It’s not as simple as asking people to record phrases, and there’s no data set just lying around,” Cattiau says. “We have to first put it together, and that’s a lot of work.”

Perhaps the most groundbreaking of Project Euphonia’s initiatives is its work on new interactive AI systems for people who are completely nonverbal. Also in its early stages, these systems are being trained to detect gestures, vocalizations and facial expressions, which can then trigger certain actions like sending or reading a text message.

“We want to cover the full spectrum of people—and not only those who can still speak,” says Cattiau. Although Project Euphonia is still in its infancy, it could eventually have a great impact on those with disabilities, giving them the freedom and flexibility to live independently.Follow me on Twitter.

-Ruth Umoh; Forbes Staff

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Nigeria Needs A More Effective Sanitation Strategy Here Are Some Ideas:

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In November last year, Nigeria declared that its water supply, sanitation and hygiene sector was in crisis. This was partly prompted by the fact that the country has struggled to make progress towards ending open defecation.

Almost one in four Nigerians – around 50 million people – defecates in open areas. They do so because access to proper sanitation, like private indoor toilets or outdoor communal toilets, has not improved in recent years.

In fact, it’s got worse: in 2000, 36.5% of Nigerians had access to sanitation facilities that hygienically separate human excreta from human contact. By 2015 the figure had dropped to 32.6%, likely driven by rapid population growth and a lack of sufficient private and public investment.

Open defecation comes with many risks. It can lead to waterborne diseases, cause preventable deaths, and hamper education and economic growth. It also infringes on people’s privacy and dignity.

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The government has tried several strategies to address this problem. In 2008 it adopted an intervention called “Community Led Total Sanitation”. This is a community-level intervention aimed at reducing open defecation and improving toilet coverage.

It draws in community leaders and ordinary residents so they can understand the risks associated with open defecation. By 2014 the intervention was deployed in all 36 Nigerian states, covering around 16% of the country’s 123,000 communities.

We wanted to know how effective the programme has been, if at all. So we conducted a study and found that community-led total sanitation programmes alone will not eradicate the practice of open defecation. But they could be part of the solution.

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We found that the programme currently works quite well in poor communities but is less effective in richer places – that is, places with higher average ownership rates of assets such as fridges, motorcycles, TVs, smartphones and power generators.

Poorer communities distinguish themselves from richer ones in other ways, too. They tend to have higher levels of trust among their citizens, lower initial levels of toilet coverage and lower wealth inequality. But none of these characteristics is, on its own, as strong a predictor of where the intervention works better than community wealth.

Low community wealth is a simple measure that encompasses all these different features, and is associated with greater programme effectiveness.

The intervention

Community-led total sanitation typically starts with mobilisation. This initially involves community leaders and then, through them, communities more broadly. Then, a community meeting is held at which residents typically start by marking their household’s location and toilet ownership status on a stylised map on the ground. They also identify and mark regular open defecation sites.

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Facilitators use the map to trace the community’s contamination paths of human faeces into water supplies and food. A number of other activities may follow, such as walks through the community that are often referred to as “walks of shame” during which visible faeces are pointed out, to evoke further disgust and shame.

Another common activity involves calculating medical expenses related to illnesses that are caused by open defecation practices.

The research

In 2015 we worked with the charity organisation WaterAid Nigeria and local government agencies in the states of Ekiti and Enugu to design a field experiment in areas with no recent experience of community led total sanitation, or similar interventions.

The community-led total sanitation programme was implemented in a random sample of 125 out of 247 clusters of rural communities.

To study the intervention’s effectiveness, we interviewed 20 randomly selected households before community-led total sanitation took place. We followed up with these households eight, 24 and 32 months after the intervention.

We found that the programme’s roll-out didn’t lead to any changes in sanitation practices in richer communities. But it worked in the poorest communities. The prevalence of open defecation declined by an average of nine percentage points in poorer communities when compared to other poor areas where the programme wasn’t implemented. This drop was accompanied by a similar increase in toilet ownership rates.

Impact depends on wealth

Our results are in line with observations by the designers of the programme. But we are the first to show quantitatively that community asset wealth is a good predictor of whether the intervention can be expected to be successful. Unfortunately, our data does not allow us to pin down why households in poorer communities are more susceptible to the programme. However, these results have important implications for more cost effective targeting of the programme.

Most countries, including Nigeria, have access to readily available datafrom household surveys that can be used to measure how asset-poor a community is. These data can be used to identify and target communities where community-led total sanitation is likely to have the biggest impact.

Eradicating open defecation is not just a Nigerian priority. Today, an estimated 4.5 billion people globally don’t have access to safe sanitation. So we also looked at data and research about this same intervention from other parts of the world.

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Community-led total sanitation intervention was first developed in Bangladesh in 1999. It has now been implemented in more than 25 Latin American, Asian and African countries.

We used information from evaluations of this intervention in Mali, India, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The studies found widely differing impacts. These ranged from a 30 percentage point increase in toilet ownership in Mali to no detectable impact on toilet ownership in Bangladesh.

Using a measure of wealth for these countries, we found that sanitation interventions have larger impacts in poorer areas, such as Tanzania, and low or no impact in relatively richer areas, such as Indonesia. This supports the idea that targeting poorer areas maximises the impact of community led total sanitation.

Conclusion

Our research shows that while community-led total sanitation is effective in Nigeria’s poorer areas, there are two main challenges.

First, community-led total sanitation had no perceivable impact in the wealthier half of our sample. There, open defecation remains widespread. And second, even in poor areas, a large number of households still engaged in open defecation after the intervention.

This suggests that while community-led total sanitation can be better targeted, it needs to be complemented with other policies – subsidies, micro-finance or programmes that promote private sector activity in this under-served market.

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