“Urgent technologies need to be deployed to optimize agriculture.” Joan Mbesya, TechMindset Africa’s Founder and CEO
Agriculture is slowly becoming digital and the availability of data is paving a way to deploy latest technologies in the sector. TechMindset Africa, is engaged in empowering Africa’s mindset towards technologies of the future.
Joan Mbesya, TechMindset Africa’s founder and CEO, says her startup’s approach is “sensitize, educate, empower.” In an exclusive conversation with AgrigateGlobal’s co-curator Saura Panigrahi, she also enumerated a number of challenges regarding digitization in farming.
You have a much-diversified portfolio from technology to entrepreneurship to social work. Please take us through your journey so far.
My journey began right after I quit my job as the General Manager of a financial institution. During that time, I started working with Procasur, a Switzerland based non-profit organization to help them in a study to learn about farming models in Kenya, how businesses get financed, and grow as a result, and how we, as an institution help them in return, and thereby the role we play in uplifting women financially. This data was to be used to implement rural financial institutions in African countries, with women at the forefront.
The program helped me learn more about agriculture and access to resources, and also helped me meet incredible women who had generated wealth through farming.
During that time, I led teams within the organization to adopt new technologies, to optimize processes, and also capture data that would help us know much more about clients, who majority were farmers. We also embarked on research on finding new agricultural tools that would help farmers to farm better, work smarter and yield more. And consequently my passion for women and agriculture emanated, since my experience helped me understand, with opportunities in Agriculture, women are able to generate more income and focus on growth, so that their primary decisions are not based on hunger or violence, but on abundance. That way, their mind is clear to make better decisions regarding their lives.
One year later, I formed my first company called Veltext communications which created mobile solutions including SMS integrations, mobile marketing services, and digital mobile services that would benefit farmers.
In order to reach out to women, I collaborated with eMobilis, a tech institution. They endorsed my vision for women education in technology and opportunities in agriculture. Subsequently, we started working towards empowering women, and give them wings to fly.
Our efforts have been recognized by AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), a global institution that revolutionizes agriculture in Africa where by appointing me as a women ambassador for digitization education to represent.
This inspired me to research more into technology, until I discover Artificial Intelligence. When I realized that it is a game changer, I never looked back. That is how I founded TECHMINDSET AFRICA LTD.
Tell us more about your work, specifically Tech Mind-set Africa
Our approach at TechMindset Africa is “sensitize, educate, empower.” The vision for Techmindset is to create a platform for AI and ML learning, and utilize the platform to incubate agricultural AI solutions where Africa would access our centers to test, prototype, and launch agricultural AI solutions. This is a clear vision for TechMindset, but as we establish that, we keep educating people on opportunities in AI, and how Africa would be a great place to start.
So far we have educated about 150 students in Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning, and we have seen projects that we never thought possible in Africa using AI. For example, the winners of AI solution implementation was a group called the creative group. They came up with an idea to create human avatars that will use AI models to represent a person in history who is famous, and can answer any question regarding that person. These avatars will have the ability to access historical information about who they are meant to be, and answer verbally questions asked by anyone interested to know about the history of the person. The other solutions ranged from agriculture AI implementation that would see better soil and crop management to maximize crop yields, and the other touched on AI solution to track poachers in Africa. So I can say, we have already started creating an AI revolution in Africa that would solve local challenges.
We are currently building an edu-tech platform that will generate content to educate Africa about AI.
How do you see cutting edge technologies like AI and ML is helping the agriculture sector in Africa?
Immensely, given the fact that, by the year 2050, the population would have grown to 9.7 billion which is about 70% more from this year, and food supply is still a crisis in most parts of the world. Therefore urgent technologies need to be deployed to optimize agriculture, for more efficient food production, high yields, less crop diseases, and better ways to sustain farming. These challenges can only be mitigated by application of Artificial Intelligence in farming.
One of the major hindrances to agricultural growth is the acceptability and affordability of advanced technologies. What are the challenges do you face in this regard?
The current solutions in the market are great but unaffordable, unrealistic and complex to farmers. Also the perception of the people of Africa is that Agriculture is done by rural people, save the few who have scaled agriculture to create wealth.
Technology penetration in agriculture is slow but progressive, however, still its embracement is not popular unless it is seen to work in a given community then its adaptation rate increases. But without peer modelling, implementation remains a challenge. Women in African communities are known to work on farming lands, but not participate in generation of income of the land. They produce enough to feed their families, but not go beyond that to generate wealth. Income generation and land ownership is mostly dominated by men, introducing a different kind of challenge.
Also to get women off farms to work on solutions that are agricultural and technology related that would generate an income is still a challenge, as women are perceived to handle less complex activities, and men are known to take charge of any advancement regarding their communities. So to get women to learn technology opportunities is still a challenge but slowly gaining popularity.
You also work towards empowering young minds particularly women with skills of the future. How is it shaping up?
The opportunity to empower young minds into technology skills especially women is shaping up as a result of two things; our model of education is whereby, every three students who get certified to learn AI are able to sponsor a girl child to learn technology, and also, our partnership model, enables us to give immense opportunities to vulnerable girls in the community to get a chance in education. And this also gives us an opportunity to orient them into technologies that revolutionize agriculture.
We target girls who have dropped out of school because of lack of resources, or have run away from their homes due to early marriages or run away as a result of Female Genital Mutilation practices which is now illegal in Kenya, and also girls who have lost learning opportunities as a result of teenage pregnancies that mostly are not their fault.
And finally, what’s next?
We are coming up with an online AI related courses, seminars, and workshop for corporates. The TechMindset AgriTech Africa Scholarships program, innovation lab, an AI business incubation space, and an AI higher learning institution is next in line.