Transforming food systems through artificial Intelligence (AI)

Transforming food systems through artificial Intelligence (AI)

FSNet-Africa fellow Dr Kadeghe Fue highlights artificial intelligence’s potential contribution to and impact on Africa’s food systems.

After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is now on the rise, affecting nearly 10% percent of people globally. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of undernourished people has increased by approximately 150 million – a global crisis that is mostly due to factors such as climate change, conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Transforming food systems is essential to achieving food security, improving nutrition, and ensuring healthy diets are within reach of all. For Africa and the rest of the world, there is a need to explore innovative approaches that can improve food systems, thereby increasing food availability and improving nutrition.

The complexity associated with food systems data requires advanced, innovative approaches that help analyse and interpret this data. Science and technology has been lauded as a means of creating food security in Africa and thereby achieving the second Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger. Artificial intelligence (AI) stands out as one of the emerging technologies with great potential to transform food systems and provide sustainable food security solutions for Africa.

During the month of July, FSNet-Africa hosted a live podcast as part of the #InCoversationWithFSNetAfrica series on Twitter Spaces. FSNet-Africa fellow and AI researcher Dr Kadeghe Fue from Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) shared his thoughts on the use of AI in transforming food systems.

Kadeghe, who holds a PhD in Engineering (Machine Vision and Robotics), said that from an early age he has always been curious about how the use of computers can solve complex problems. Below are some of the highlights from the interview with Kadeghe.

What role does AI play in food systems?

The food system generates a lot of complex data – what we call big data – that comes in different formats. Using AI, one can analyse the data and present what is called data-driven agriculture that leads to smart solutions that preserve the environment, save costs, and promote agriculture that is good for human health.

Most African farmers cannot afford these technologies. How will this be relevant to the farmers?

AI plays a big role in food systems. Across the agriculture value chains there are data involved – from production to the consumer. There is therefore need to understand the different stages. There are satellites that provide free data such as Landsat and Sentinel. For farms, there is free satellite data such as information on weather and other aspects that can be used on the farm. Such information can be used to predict potential diseases and the performance of specific crops. In the case of potential diseases, mitigation measures can be put in place beforehand. Market prices for products can be predicted well in advance, and this can help farmers make informed decisions and maximise profits. Farmers also use AI to translate documents to local languages through a technology called Natural Language Processing.

What are the main challenges related to AI within the food system that researchers should tackle in Africa?

Despite being around since the 1950s, AI only gained attention around 2010 due to the advancement in technology called Air Network. The technologies were developed around the 1980s but could not be used because the computing capacity of that time was less advanced. When computers became powerful and more advanced, it became feasible to deploy AI machines.

In Africa, this advancement has lagged behind because powerful AI machines are. Governments need to subsidise AI machines for start-up companies (mostly owned by young people) that promote the use of AI, even in agriculture.

Call to action

  • Create digital data agriculture food networks across Africa that serve as learning and sharing platforms for deploying AI to smallholder farmers.
  • Integrate AI courses in university agriculture programmes to promote the use of AI in agriculture.
  • Encourage African governments to offer more support, such as funding for start-up companies that promote the use of AI.

To listen to the original interview click here