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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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Walmart Sues Tesla Over Solar Panels That Allegedly Caught Fire

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Topline: Walmart is alleging in a lawsuit that Tesla solar panels caused fires on the roofs of seven Walmart stores, and is accusing Tesla of breach of contract, gross negligence and failure to comply with industry standards. 

  • Walmart claims that Tesla installed faulty solar panels that eventually spontaneously combusted and caught fire at seven Walmart stores around the country.
  • The lawsuit alleges that Tesla inspectors didn’t notice defects that were visible to the naked eye, used cable connectors that weren’t compatible with one another and failed to see that loose and hanging wires were present at multiple sites.

READ MORE | Jeff Bezos And Elon Musk Want To Get To The Moon—They Just Disagree On How To Get There

  • Walmart says in the lawsuit it believes the failures were the result of rushed installation because Tesla’s solar division “adopted an ill-considered business model that required it to install solar panel systems haphazardly and as quickly as possible in order to turn a profit, and the contractors and subcontractors who performed the original installation work had not been properly hired, trained, and supervised.”

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes.

Key Background: Tesla got into the solar business after it acquired SolarCity in 2016 for $2.6 billion. But production of its residential solar panels under Tesla has been mired with delays and plunging sales. 

Just this week, CEO Elon Musk announced a revamped pricing plan in an effort to boost the slowing business. The new pricing model allows residents in six states to rent solar power systems starting at $50 a month ($65 a month in California) instead of buying them up front.

Further Reading: Read the full lawsuit here.

-Rachel Sandler, Forbes


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How To Cut The Cord: The Top Smart TVs For Streaming 2019

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Freeing yourself from the shackles of cable or satellite television is easier to do than you might think, especially if you have a smart or connected television.

Smart TVs have integrated internet and interactive features that allow users to stream music and videos, browse the Web and view photos. Almost every new high-end television sold within the last two years or so has smart capabilities. So how do you choose?

If you want to take advantage of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and more, then look at these television sets.

LG C9 OLED 65-inch TV
Best smart TVs
On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from apps like Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. LG

In addition to a beautiful, detailed picture and a big soundstage, this 4K OLED sports cutting-edge connectivity, including an HDMI 2.1, and a comprehensive feature set including both Google Home and Amazon Alexa built in. It also comes with Home Dashboard, a new tool that turns the set into the central control hub of all your connected home devices—from doorbell cameras to smart thermostats to appliances like a washing machine or a stove.

On the streaming front, it provides a single place to browse and search for TV shows and movies from sites such as Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, PlayStation Vue, and more. It also lets users rent, purchase and watch TV shows and movies from Apple’s iTunes store.

Vizio 55-inch M-Series Quantum
Best smart tVs
This Vizio is equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit, making it just as suitable for iOS users. VIZIO

At under $700, the 55-inch M-Series Quantum offers a serious value in the smart TV arena. Not only does it deliver an excellent picture and sound, but it is also equipped with updated SmartCast 3.0 software, which includes support for Apple AirPlay2 and HomeKit (making it just as suitable for iOS users).

The update also has a more vibrant selection of locally installed apps, including Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu and Vudu. Thanks to a partnership with PlutoTV, the Vizio also offers a dedicated streaming channel called WatchFree, which gives you a TV-watching experience with more than 100 free channels, including sports, news, cartoons, and movies. You can also pair the set with an Amazon Echo device for voice control with Alexa.

Sony Master Series 65-inch A9F OLED TV
Best Smart TVs
This 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant capability, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices.SONY

If money is no object and you want a TV with loads of features, an incredible picture and terrific sound, go with the Sony A9G. The A9F is one of the first Sony Android TVs to ship with the newest version of its smart OS. The most notable names in video are preloaded, including Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV,and YouTube. For music, Google Play Music, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, Tidal and a slew of internet radio stations.

This Sony 65-incher also comes with Google Assistant, which lets you search for content, find online information, use online services and even control smart-home devices. 

TCL 43S517 Roku Smart 4K TV
Best smart TVs
The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. TCL

Great things can come in packages costing less than $400. Not only will you get a terrific picture, robust sound and a slew of genuinely exciting features, this TCL 43-inch model sports Dolby Vision HDR, Dolby Atmos audio support and integrated Roku voice search.

The Roku TV interface is uncluttered and easy to navigate, with big square tiles for all of your apps and streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu. There are also apps for major broadcasters, major sports leagues, and premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. Of particular interest to cord-cutters will be support for Sling TV, which provides a cable-like experience without the expense of a cable subscription.

Insignia 43-Inch 4K Fire TV Edition
Best Smart TVs
This under $300 43-incher offers most of the apps you’d expect, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. INSIGNIA

Amazon finally seems to have a Fire TV that can compete with the Roku-powered smart sets. This 4K television with HDR support is packed with features for the Amazon faithful, with Alexa voice interaction built-in, Amazon’s huge selection of Fire TV apps, and a smart TV experience that puts Prime Video centerstage.  

This 43-incher costs less than $300 and offers most of the streaming apps you would expect, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and HBO Now, as well as Amazon Prime Video. Plus, Fire TV will soon get an official YouTube app packed with services such as YouTube Kids, YouTube Music and (most critical for cord-cutters) YouTube TV.

-Chuck Tannert, Forbes

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Multi-Disciplinary Education In The 4IR Era

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There is an adage that states “if you want to know the future of a nation, study the behavior of its teachers”.

The most potent force for political, economic and social progress in society is education. The measure of how great a nation will rise is determined by how many people in its population are educated. The African continent today has a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.7 trillion, and a population of 1.2 billion people.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 2016, sub-Saharan Africa had a literacy rate of 76% compared to 89% in South and West Asia, 87% in the Arab states and 98% in the developed nations.

This literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is far from adequate, and calls for urgent and practical action to improve it.

READ MORE | Amid Trade Wars, What Africa Must Do

We are living in an era characterized by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) where technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are changing all aspects of our lives. Factories are automating. Because of these changes, the nature of work is changing.

Many jobs are disappearing altogether, and new types of jobs are being created. For example, we now have jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, such as Data Scientists. AI is now able to diagnose severe diseases such as pulmonary embolism, epilepsy and leukemia complementing the work of medical professionals. Because of the rapid automation in the medical field, doctors today require an in-depth knowledge of technology.

These changes in society because of 4IR require new sets of skills. Are our education systems ready to capacitate our people with the requisite skills to tackle the problems of 4IR?  Do we have enough teachers at all levels of our educational systems to be able to give our people skills that will make them useful in the 4IR era? Do we have enough educational institutions to be able to skill our people? Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions are in the negative.

READ MORE | Data Is The New Gold

Given that we do not have enough teachers nor educational institutions to provide a critical mass of our people the requisite capabilities that will help them survive in the 4IR, what is to be done? One way of tackling this problem is to take a lesson from the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who realized that for India to thrive in the 20th century, it needed to invest in elite technical education. In this regard, he introduced the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

Nehru had this to say in 1956 at the first convocation address of the first IIT in Kharagpur, a city in West Bengal: “…Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.”

It is vital that African countries create a few elite institutions that will drive the African continent into the 4IR. The Pan-African University supported by the African Union is a good start, but we can do more.

Additionally, these elite institutes should not be limited to higher education only but must also focus on primary and secondary education. One example in Johannesburg is the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which targets gifted 16-to-19-year-olds. Today, the ALA has alumni from 46 different countries making an impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of the African continent.

READ MORE | The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

For us to thrive in the 4IR era also requires our educational experience to be multi-disciplinary. In our limited institutions of higher learning, students enrolled for programs in the human and social sciences must also study technological subjects.

Those enrolled in technological programs must study human and social subjects. Technological subjects should focus on the issues that confront the African continent, such as affordable and appropriate technology, limited and incomplete data, and cost-effective manufacturing.

The human and social subjects should focus on the urgent issues facing Africa today, such as social cohesion, connectivity, stability, conflict and unity. Due to the limitations of physical infrastructure and good teachers, African countries should pull their resources together and invest in online platforms to facilitate education through modern techniques such as blended and augmented learning.

The outcome of the education system, whether at primary, secondary, or tertiary levels, should be logical, numeracy and verbal skills. These skills will give our people the capacity to tackle the challenges of the 4IR such as coding, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and decision-making. 

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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