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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.  

Entrepreneurs

31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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A Bottom-Up Approach To Cheaper, Next-Gen Electric Vehicles

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REE Automotive thinks the way to get electric vehicles into the mainstream is to flatten things out–by using a skateboard platform that integrates the battery, motors and driving controls into a flush floor and allows for independent steering of wheels. And while this tech startup’s concept is radical, it’s finding support from traditional automotive partners.

The latest to sign on is Tokyo-based KYB Corp., one of the world’s biggest makers of shock absorbers. The companies said today they’ve formed a partnership to develop suspension capabilities for electric vehicles that will be built off of Tel Aviv-based REE’s platform. Financial details of the arrangement, the first EV project for KYB, weren’t disclosed. REE emerged from stealth mode in 2019 and is also working with Toyota-affiliated truckmaker Hino, Mitsubishi Corp. and FiatChrysler.

CEO and cofounder Daniel Barel

REE AUTOMOTIVE

KYB is “excited to partner with REE Automotive and share its revolutionary EV vision by engineering a suspension subsystem that supports the needs of tomorrow’s mobility ecosystem,” Kazunori Masumoto, KYB’s general manager of engineering, said in a statement. 

For more than a decade, many companies have touted the benefits of standardized, flat undercarriages that could support multiple vehicle types, from sedans and crossovers to vans and commercial trucks, to dramatically eliminate costs to create individual platforms for each. Most recently, electric truck startup Rivian, automotive tech firm Canoo and the U.K.’s Arrival have promoted flat platforms for a range of battery-powered vehicles, but REE cofounder and CEO Daniel Barel says his company takes the approach even farther. 

“They’re great, but they are not skateboards. Only the middle is a skateboard,” Barel tells Forbes. The difference is how much battery REE’s design can accommodate and the complete integration of drive controls into the floor, he says. “We hold the most batteries per footprint than anybody else in the industry.” 

Barel says his company, which is not building complete vehicles, intends to have its technology on the road in 2021. One possible version was shown in October at the Tokyo Motor Show by Hino, with its FlatFormer electric concept vehicle riding on an REE-based platform. The Japanese truckmaker showed variations of the concept modified to serve as delivery trucks, food service and sanitation vehicles, mobile offices and salons and even agricultural and sanitation trucks, with different tops riding on the platform.

“KYB’s technology will play a crucial role in the rapid development of our next-generation EV architecture, which reinvents the electric vehicle with a completely flat, scalable and fully modular platform, ready to carry the future of e-mobility,” Barel said.

Along with lowering development costs, electric vehicles using REE’s technology will be lighter and considerably more compact. “We’re not only 33% lighter, but we’re almost 70% smaller in footprint” relative to Tesla Model 3, with the same interior volume, Barel claims. The business plan would rely mainly on supplying its design to different companies, ranging from auto and truck manufacturers to delivery and logistics companies, that he declined to identify. 

To date, REE has raised “about $100 million” from investors and automotive partners, Barel said, without elaborating. That’s more than double the $40.2 million the company had raised through its Series C round in 2018, according to Crunchbase. Additional fundraising is planned for 2020, though he didn’t provide details. 

If REE or other startups can bring viable platforms to market, demand could be strong, says Gartner IT transportation tech analyst Mike Ramsey. “There’s a lot of reasons to think that this would be super appealing. You’ve opened up the world of automakers very large, potentially, you know, with this platform approach,” he said. “But it does still require a lot of additional work–the crash testing, the assembly system and everything needed to support it.”     

Whether REE’s approach works in the real world remains to be seen, but it’s an approach that could help speed the slow shift away from conventional internal combustion engine designs if it helps make EVs easier to build and much cheaper. Barel sees flat platforms as doing just that. 

“To keep on building vehicles the same way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Staff, Transportation

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Entrepreneurs

Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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