Tag Archives: farming

Chefs spill the beans, but where are the farmers? Reflections from the EAT Forum 2019 in Stockholm

By: Aniek Hebinck, Communicator and Researcher at SLU Global & Environmental Change Institute. Aniek holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Science from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and wrote her thesis on Shaping Sustainable Food Systems.

The EAT Forum carnival is back in town and it’s as ambitious as ever! This year’s edition is themed ‘The Science is Clear: It’s time to Act’.

During two days in June Stockholm becomes the temporary hive for many ‘foodies’ coming from business, policy, academia and civil society. The forum kicked off with messages bouncing from hopeful, thanks to the environmental movement created by the youth, to fearful of the current social and ecological challenges. Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT, set the tone for the 2019 edition of the Forum by calling on all of us to be a bit more like Greta Thunberg.

‘Academic rock stars’ Jessica Fanzo and Johan Rockström emphasized that “the science is clear”. By this, they mainly refer to the EAT-Lancet report, which argues for a drastic protein shift to plant-based foods, particularly in high-income societies. After having set out the main points of the dense EAT-Lancet report, they urged governments and business to embrace science-based evidence and use it for setting the targets for sustainable diets.  

Fanzo and Rockström also highlighted some of the aspects that this report has not covered. These include translation of what the ‘planetary health diet’ means for a national setting or the analysis of trade-offs between the potential winners and losers of the transition. It’s here where EAT invites the forum’ attendees to fill in those gaps, invoking higher participation from the civil society, contrary to earlier years.

One group that is keen to contribute to solving this puzzle are the chefs. The ‘planetary health diet’ may have been scrutinized by academics for its overgeneralization and the lack of adaptation to national contexts, but the chefs happily tackle this challenge. Lorna Maseko, a celebrity chef from South Africa, and a Nigerian chef Michael Elegbede emphasized that it is crucial to increase the diversity of what we eat and what we grow for the intake of micronutrients and biodiversity in general, but also to learn from other cultures through their food. 

Photo: Aniek Hebinck

This message echoes through as a collective of chefs, united behind the ‘Chefs Manifesto’, enters the Kitchen Stage. Doing what they do best – cooking. The audience eagerly munched on the ‘turtle bean’ dish that the Kenyan Instagram celebrity Chef Ali Mandhry was handing out. Meanwhile, Chef Chantelle Nicholson from New Zealand stressed that chefs could inspire both professional and home cooks to prepare meals based on the ‘planetary health diet’. Indeed, this merry bunch has clearly demonstrated how Lancet’ scientific targets can be translated into recipes for sustainable, healthy and tasty daily home cooking.

While their importance is frequently mentioned, a group that hasn’t been very visible at the forum, are farmers. Early on in the day, Wiebe Draijer (Rabobank) urged to make farmers the heroes of change. After all, they are crucial in making a transition to a ‘planetary health diet’. However, this has proven to be easier said than done.

The last panel of the first day titled ‘Transforming Agriculture: restoring hope”, represented by international institutions and large businesses, made an attempt to capture the voice of farmers as it was. Assan N’gombe (AGRA) underscored the crucial role of small-scale farmers, highlighting the challenges farmers face when adopting climate-smart agriculture and that there is a need to engage with farmers directly and to build trust. Mariana Vasconcelos (Agrosmart and farmer’s daughter) continued by stressing that being a farmer is not an easy job and requires, daily decision-making and risk management. Lastly, Eric Souberain (Danone) acknowledged that food has become a commodity and that farmers are not fairly rewarded for what they bring to the table. At the end of this session, very little was said about the implications of a shift to a ‘planetary health diet’ for the many small-scale farmers worldwide.

Day one of the forum highlighted many insights regarding technological innovations and uptake of science, but also underscored the continued challenge to establish an inclusive dialogue and action to foster food system change.

This blog post was originally published at SIANI.

How can Artificial Intelligence improve African agriculture?

By: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, Professor of Bioinformatics at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, SLU

As climates change and populations increase, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a key player in Africa in the creation of technological innovations that will improve and protect crop yield and livestock. 

Participants at “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” in Nairobi, Kenya, April 2019. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The work creating technologies that allows computers and machines to function in an intelligent manner is known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. The advantages of using AI based devices or systems are their low error rate and huge analysis capacity. If properly coded the AI systems have incredible precision, accuracy, and speed. They can also work independently in many, for humans, hard conditions and environments. One of the most interesting areas where AI is breaking into is agriculture. 

One area using AI and attracting a lot of attention is the area more known as “Precision Farming”. Precision Farming generates accurate and controlled technologies for water and nutrient management. It also gives optimal harvesting, planting times and produce solutions in many other aspects of modern agriculture.

In April 2019 a workshop was held at Strathmore University, Nairobi in with the aim to set up a “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa”. There where 60 international participants by invitation. The meeting was supported by Swedish SIDA and organised by the International Development Research Centre and Knowledge 4 Foundation (K4A).

Plenary discussions. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The main goal of the workshop was to discuss the AI field with a bottom-up approach. The objectives of the workshop were to define the African Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML/AI) landscape, to create an African research roadmap and to find ways to incorporate cross continental development. Around these objectives, four thematic areas of discussion were developed: governance, skills/capacity building, applications and others. 

Discussions during a break. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

On the last day of the workshop we visited the IBM Research – Africa in Nairobi. The staff at IBM-Africa presented several AI projects and one example related to the future of AI in agriculture was presented by Juliet Mutahi, a software Engineer working at the IBM Nairobi THINKLab. She presented “Hello Tractor” a system comparable to Uber for taxi but in this case a system that allows farmers to share tractor resources by using an app on their smartphones. This is the kind of initiatives that are created in Africa as a bottom-up approach. Juliet told the audience that she got the idea to create this system inspired by the work and needs of her parents that are coffee farmers in Kenya.

Juliet Mutahi software Engineer, IBM Nairobi THINKLab. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

While identifying the different AI actors in the African continent, another initiative stood out among many: the “Deep Learning Indaba” initiative. This is an annual meeting of the African machine learning community. In 2018 the meeting took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa and gathered 600 participants from many African countries. The next annual meeting will take place in Nairobi, Kenya in August 2019 and the aim for this year is to gather over 700 participants. This shows the strength and vitality for this area of research in the Africa continent.

Many issues connected to agriculture will in the future be better handled using machine learning and artificial intelligence because AI can automate tasks that require human-level intelligence or beyond. This makes solutions that integrate AI better than today’s technologies. Most researchers involved in development research will in the near future learn how to use and how to incorporate AI in their work. Our young colleagues in the “Deep Learning Indaba” community are showing the way. The work in creating the “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” is just one of the building blocks in this process and SLU will be part of it.

Final panel discussion. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Watch an interview with Erik Bongcam-Rudloff talking about African bioinformatics and AI filmed at the Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in Nairobi, Kenya.

What are the effects of something that never happened?

By: Dr. Linda Engström, Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU

It is early morning when we leave a cool, overcast Bagamoyo town and the beaches of the Indian Ocean behind us. We are driving north-west towards Razaba Ranch, the area in eastern Tanzania where the Swedish company Eco Energy is planning to plant thousands of hectares of sugar cane and construct a sugar factory. Over the years, I have visited the area many times. This time, as well, I want to talk to the people living on the land targeted by the project, to understand their perceptions of it and the dynamics on the ground. The rainy season has just started and we expect a muddy, slippery trip. As we approach Razaba Ranch, we round a bend in the road and see that the Ruvu river has burst its banks, covering the bridge in slowly simmering, brown water. Two young men have seen the potential to make some money and are doing the important job of guiding cars through the water in order to avoid invisible rocks and to direct drivers to the shallow waters. Our car cannot pass through with us inside it. We pull off our shoes and start wading through the brown water until we reach across to the muddy road. Over the years, these floods have caused delays in project timelines, since they reduce access to the project site, and they have been repeatedly omitted in new timelines. We stop at one sub-village on the left side of the road, the side that is promised to the investor. We greet the village chair, people appear from nearby houses and some people travelling along the road stop, all gathering under a huge tree to talk to us about the planned investment, sitting on logs and, as the group expands, on yellow plastic containers. I know several of them by now, others are new acquaintances. Outside the nearest house are rows of white plastic rice bags packed with charcoal. In the meeting, we are told, among other things, that due to restrictions on agricultural practices while awaiting resettlement, more people have become dependent on charcoal production for their livelihoods. People are hoping that, after the ongoing rainy season, something will progress as concerns the resettlement as the roads are opened up again.

The Swedish sugar-cane project in Bagamoyo was initiated in 2006 through a Memorandum of Understanding between the company, then called SEKAB, and the Government of Tanzania. Since then, the original idea to produce ethanol for the European market has, for various reasons, changed into mainly producing sugar for the Tanzanian market. The plan has been to launch a 450 million USD project with a 300 million USD loan from the African Development Bank and a credit guarantee from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. The project, based on a 99-year lease of the land, was marketed by the Swedish company executives with great promises. For instance, the project was to produce 130,000 tons sugar and 10 million litres ethanol annually, produce reliable electricity supply to 100,000 rural households. It would employ 2000 people and 10,000–12,000 jobs as spin-off effects, provide  13–18 million USD in annual revenue for outgrower farmers and provide the state with 30 million USD in yearly tax revenues. In all, it would reduce poverty and bring rural development.

However, when we visit the area this time, ten years have passed since project initiation, and there is still not a single sugar cane in sight. Timelines have been repeatedly postponed; conflicts over land have arisen, negotiations over compensations, floods and issues of resettlement have interfered with the process, bureaucratic procedures and unexpected external events have grinded down the expected simple, linear project implementation process – it encountered reality. All the while, major proponents of the project, such as Sida, the African Development Bank and the Tanzanian President at the time, Kikwete (2005-2015), maintained their support of the project. Sida even supported the project with 54 million SEK from the Swedish development budget. One could assume that the transaction costs for the Tanzanian government must have been severe. And all the while, the approximately 1400 people living on the land and using it for their livelihoods have been regularly informed to be ready for an upcoming resettlement. They have been encouraged not to invest in their land, nor any other assets; they should not plant perennial crops such as trees, since they will not be compensated for such investment upon resettlement. Some people were lucky to get training in construction or driving, as part of the international best practice that was pursued for the resettlement process. Some farmer men decided to send away their wives and children to relatives, where the future seemed more predictable, or quit farming and took jobs with the company for minimum salaries. Many farmers we talk to have stopped investing in their land and houses, and postponed development plans. As indicated above, charcoal production became an interesting alternative way of earning an income, with subsequent environmental consequences. Most of all, the uncertainty, the lack of complete information about what was happening, when and why, are factors that caused great mental stress and frustration. I often received questions about what was actually happening. For instance they repeatedly asked me if I knew whether the inflation rate was going to be considered for their compensation payments, since many years had passed since the evaluation of their assets had been performed. As a matter of fact, they did not even have the information about how much their assets were valued at in the initial evaluation.

Thus, while many of the project proponents referred to the project as “nothing has happened”, there was a myriad of events, processes, negotiations and impacts going on, both on the project site and outside it. Most notable is the profound livelihood effects the non-implemented project had on the people living in Razaba Ranch. Moreover, when the newly elected President Magufuli in 2016 decided to withdraw the land-rights of the company, Eco Energy decided to sue the Tanzanian government at an international center for dispute settlement in Washington to get the allegedly invested 52 million USD back. In all, these processes have impacted on relations of all kinds, between and within different involved groups of actors.

While unintended outcomes of failed development projects have been rather frequently discussed in development studies (see, for instance David Mosse’s “Ethography of Aid” from 2005 or Tania Li’s “Will to Improve” from 2007), to my experience, it is rarely being reflected in development policy debates. Rather, delayed or non-implemented projects risk ending up “under the radar”, where impacts are irrelevant to monitor or mitigate. Moreover, it seems sparsely reflected in sustainability criteria, such as the IFC (International Finance Cooperation) standards applied in this case. Therefore, risks of failure and its effects should be paid more attention in policy debates, especially since projects that never happened apparently can have profound, and even negative, impacts on all involved actors, not least the people assumed to benefit from them.

Engström, L.(2018). Development Delayed – Exploring the failure of a large-scale agricultural investment in Tanzania to deliver promised outcomes. (Doctoral Degree), Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.