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ICTs and food-security: a challenging endeavour addressed by Prof. Giovanna Seddaiu, EWABELT Coordinator, at the United Nations.

"We really believe that AI solutions should be culturally sensitive taking into account local traditions, beliefs, and social structures to ensure acceptability and avoid unintended consequences."

Watch the statements by the speakers on our "SI in Africa" Joint YouTube channel

Acknowledging to the challenges that African countries have to address - from high levels of food and nutrition insecurity to land degradation and partial access to adequate technologies and the agri-food value chain, now also exacerbated by climate change - the EWABELT Project (GA 862848) has been working to promote the Sustainable Intensification (SI) approach to offer practical ways to increase agricultural yield while preserving natural resources (water, soil, biodiversity, and land) and the flow of ecosystem services. The ongoing activities are underways in 6 sub-Saharan African countries, namely Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, with interesting results being achieved, benefiting farmers, on the field agents, researchers and policymakers alike. 

One of the main focus of the Project is the use and access to ICTs to prevent the spread of food insecurity levels. Indeed, as highlighted during the 23rd Infopoverty World Conference, providing ICTs to remote and rural communities has great potential for mitigating poverty and improving the socio-economic status of the beneficiaries. Not only ICTs enable access to educational resources and training materials for farmers, but they also empower them with knowledge about modern farming techniques, eventually leading to increased productivity.

Learn how the EWABELT Project is contributing to this ambitious objective with Prof. Giovanna Seddaiu, EWABELT Coordinator and Professor of Agronomics at the University of Sassari.

Read her statement on the occasion of the second session of the 23rd Infopoverty World Conference dedicated to the Project on the theme “Poverty eradication and hunger: a first challenging priority for AI” on April 12, 2024 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

"Thank you very much. I wish to thank OCCAM for organizing this event in a very important and fascinating venue and for inviting the EWABELT project to contribute again this year. This is the fourth year for EWABELT to present the results and since we are one year and a half, more or less, to the end of the project, I’m really delighted to share with all of you the important achievements that we have obtained so far.
So, first of all, I would like to say a few words about the project. The overall objective of EWABELT is to develop food production systems promoting sustainable intensification in different countries in East and West Africa. We are working in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in the Eastern Region, and in Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Sierra Leon in the Western Region. Most important is that we want to realize an interregional African belt to promote sustainable intensification by assessing and exchanging best practices and experiences among these different contexts. 
Sustainable agriculture intensification is thus a core topic in EWA BELT, which means that we want to achieve, according to the FAO definition, production systems and crop management technologies that increase productivity without adverse effects on both humans and the environment. Why is sustainable intensification so important for African farming systems especially in the sub-Saharan African systems where the EWA BELT project is working? These countries are facing a huge crop yield gap, i.e. a high difference between the potential and the actual yield. For example, in rainfed maize grown in sub–Saharan African countries the yield gap could be up to ten tons per hectare. This means that you need to cultivate ten times more land to obtain the same amount of yield. This depends very often on the mismanagement of resources and agricultural inputs. For example, pesticides are often not timely supplied and/or in inappropriate amounts, and moreover commonly without any health security device causing very important health problems to farmers.
What is the role of AI for sustainable intensification? We know that artificial intelligence in agriculture is used mainly for crop yield prediction and price forecasts, for intelligence spraying, predictive insights, crops and soil monitoring and disease diagnosis. EWABELT is working on crop yield prediction and increased productivity and for disease diagnoses especially. At a global scale, the common applications of AI are especially for predicting purposes (40%), for managing harvesting (31%) with robotics especially, and for advanced care of crops (about 30%).
So as all the other speakers before me have highlighted, there are a lot of opportunities also in this interlink between artificial intelligence and African agricultural systems. The major benefits are increasing productivity and resource efficiency like in precision agriculture systems, enhancing market connectivity but also job creation (i.e., attracting youth to agriculture and thus addressing the critical issue of job creation in Africa). But there are a lot of challenges as well: limited access to advanced technology and inadequate infrastructures for rural communities, the digital divide, the limited availability and quality of data, and insufficient proficiency of agriculture stakeholders particularly in rural communities. Furthermore, a lot of ethical concerns are emerging from the use of AI in African agriculture. Among the many ethical concerns, data privacy and the potential for technology-induced job displacement are very relevant, but there are many others. There is a strong debate in the international community to try to develop ethical AI practices through fairness and bias mitigation, inclusivity and accessibility, human-centric design, capacity building and training, continuous monitoring and assessment, education programs, and cultural sensitivity. This latter aspect is very important and EWA BELT is working a lot in this respect. We really believe that AI solutions should be culturally sensitive taking into account local traditions, beliefs, and social structures to ensure acceptability and avoid unintended consequences. So the promotion of traditional knowledge is a key issue. We should valorize traditional knowledge to inform and feed the development of AI solutions. This is really one of our goals within EWA BELT. I will tell you just a few examples because after me the other speakers will provide details. 
The EWABELT project is really trying to explore the fascinating intersection between combining modern technology and traditional knowledge. How? We are working in 6 African countries with over 30 farmer field research units which are dialogue platforms gathering different groups of stakeholders, scientists, farmers, practitioners, advisors, and other key stakeholders and where processes of co-learning, co-creation, and hybridization of knowledge are facilitated. The idea is to develop some ICT tools and AI-based technologies able to promote the sustainable intensification of cropping systems. Today, we will present some examples from the Ewa-belt project such as the PlantHead Diagnostic Network and the Lab-on-chip quantitative real-time PCR. After me, my colleagues will provide details.
Both of these technologies are early warning systems for detecting plant pathogens and the idea is to develop these kinds of systems by integrating them, especially the PlantHead network with the traditional knowledge. The PlantHead network is a system where images of crop diseases are collected by farmers, sent to service providers who provide a diagnosis and solutions, and contemporarily the images feed an AI machine learning system. The solutions that are provided for crop protection are emerging from the discussions within the farmer field research units and, for example, one of the solutions is being developed through the promotion and the innovation of traditional knowledge is the case of biopesticides: Later, the ACRA team will present the experience on the Cassia nigricans based extracts. Moreover, traditional knowledge is promoted also through the studies on the NUS, the neglected and underutilized species, that represent a core research topic of the EWA BELT project. We are analyzing the associated traditional knowledge, traditional habits, and uses within our farmer field research units. After me, we will present an example of the value chain in the case of Fonio but we are working also on several other NUS like Cassava, Frafra potato, Enset, Teff, and Coccinia abyssinica.
I really hope that all the conference participants will appreciate our stories and our experiences and they will encourage and support our efforts in expanding, replicating and scaling out the impacts in the development of the virtual belt between West and East Africa but also beyond.
I would like to say a few words in memory of Professor Naresh Magan, here are some pictures of Naresh in the field with us during EWA BELT travels in Africa. Professor Naresh Magan passed away last year after a short illness. He belonged to the staff of Cranfield University and was leading very important tasks in EWABELT on post-harvest technologies. He was a distinguished and outstanding scientist in applied mycology at the international level. His passion for his subject was really infectious and we miss him enormously. Rest in peace, Naresh."

-Prof. Giovanna Seddaiu

EWABELT Coordinator,

Professor of Agronomics at University of Sassari

Drawing from the insights emerged from the statements of the participants - stay tuned for more! - OCCAM drafted the Final declaration of the Conference, which includes suggestions, proposals and recommendations at all levels to cope with an ever-changing world where technologies, if adequately oriented and regulated, could be beneficial to a global socio-economic development in view of e-welfare for all, in the respect of human rights and UN principles. 

Alongside it, OCCAM outlined the Plan of Action that encompasses all the operative instances that emerged towards the achievement of the SDGs and the UN 2030 Agenda, dedicating particular attention to the best practices of the EWABELT Project and promoting scientific and policy recommendations for the benefit of the most disadvantaged communities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 


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