ISF: the theme of sustainable technology is crucial in Africa

The third edition of the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival was held in Rovereto between the 17th and 19th of October. This festival is aimed at stimulating the dialogue around the social impact of new technologies. The second day opened with the meeting ‘The African Youth dreams and challenges: what can technology do?’. Among the speakers there was Maurizio Bertoldi, ISF Africa coordinator. We talked with him about the ISF activity and discussed the impact of digital technologies in Africa.

by  Luca Indemini (translation by Agnese Glauda)

Maurizio Bertoldi, besides coordinating the projects of Informatici Senza Frontiere in Africa, is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Sinapto. A company offering technological counselling. The African context is surely very different from the Western one. There are challenges and specific problems. Therefore, it is necessary to be able to adapt and target interventions, not to waste resources and in order to maximize the impacts.

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Maurizio Bertoldi, where should we start?

The main theme is sustainable technology both in the Western world and (even more) in Africa.

” The damages brought by unsustainable technology are visible to anyone. For instance, I think about the mines in Congo, where they extract Coltan. Coltan is essential for the production of smartphones. Advanced technology has a very high toll, which is often paid in Africa. Nonetheless, there are some alternatives, such as the Fairphone, the sustainable smartphone that cares about who produces it and the impact on the planet.”

“Another big issue is linked to hardware disposal, which creates landfills in Ghana and Bangladesh. Less evident, but not less challenging, is the software impact. Are Bitcoin and blockchain sustainable from an energy standpoint in Africa? Informatici Senza Frontiere works to inform the population about the advantages of digital technology. Firstly, it is a universal language. If I learn the Java programming language, it is the same in New York, India and Africa. This is a very ‘disruptive’ aspect of digital technology. Furthermore, the Internet allows me to be everywhere, anywhere, at any time. These are all opportunities to take advantage of, but in an ethical, conscious and sustainable way.”

Due to the lack of primary resources, should we question whether bridging the digital divide should really be a priority in Africa. Or, should we rather consider this a primary need?

“Sometimes, we hear comments such as: “ they do not have food and you worry about bringing technology” but this logic does not hold up.”

Technology does not solve specific problems. Instead, it is an enabling factor to face many challenges.

“The open source software Open Hospital is a good example. It is used to manage hospital activities in Uganda and in many other African hospitals. Open source software is fundamental to create inclusive access to technological solutions, at least on an economic level. Then, there is certainly a need for competences, but that can be easily fixed. It is important to stimulate the collaboration among different organisations, to create solutions that can be replicated in other countries.”

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Open Hospital Platform in a hospital in Somaliland

“Moreover, the average population age in Africa is very low. The youth is willing to get involved, even if they often take the wrong direction. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a programmer, risking to become the exploited working class of the new millennium. We try to promote youth entrepreneurship, by promoting digital technologies. There are many interesting examples in the agritech sector, the logistic sector or the mobile app sector. In Addis Ababa only, there are five competing car sharing services, similar to Uber.”

How does Informatici Senza Frontiere place itself in this context?

“ISF aims at creating partnerships with local associations, institutions and organizations such as Cuamm, together with the Comboni missionaries. Everywhere where an IT project is necessary. We analyse the needs, draft a project and implement it working together with volunteers or aid workers.”

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“Our intervention is based on three pillars. First of all, training. We create digital classrooms and train mainly the teachers to facilitate the knowledge transfer. Then, we have projects in the health sector, digitizing the infrastructures. Finally, we provide counselling for public administration and universities. Our goal is to guide choices, so to avoid waste”.

Where is ISF active in Africa?

“We are active especially in Eastern Africa: Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania. But also Somaliland, Sudan, Kenya. Whereas in the west, we have projects in Cameroon and Senegal. About ten countries overall.”

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Saint Luke Hospital in Wolisso, the first paperless hospital in Ethiopia

If you had to choose an exemplary case among your African projects, which one would you choose ?

“For sure the Saint Luke Hospital in Wolisso, Ethiopia. It is a perfect example of the way we work. We collaborated with Cuamm and contributed to make it the first entirely paperless hospital in the area.”

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In conclusion, could you tell us something about the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival. What does it stand for ?

“Now, it is a well established event. This is the third edition. In the beginning, we used to organize two annual assemblies: an internal one and a second one aiming to create a moment for exchanging opinions with the public. We bet on Open Source and networks are, for us, not just the ones made of cables.

Three years ago we decided to turn the second annual assembly into a real festival, targeting especially to youth and schools. It is a moment to take stock of the situation and share technological, robotic and AI knowledge, without forgetting an ethical and sustainable approach. Basically, the message that we want to bring across is that technology is a tool to improve results. It does not solve problems by its own but it helps facing them more efficiently. For instance, it can help manage hospitals and schools better.”

From threat to resource: Precious Plastic gives new life to plastic

A hands-on approach, an ‘open’ mindset and a master’s thesis. These are the elements that brought Precious Plastic to life. Precious Plastic is a global community which connects hundreds of people working to find a solution to plastic pollution. Knowledge, tools and techniques are shared online for free. This allows everyone to enter the community and to give their contribution. Thus, Precious Plastic is still growing and has recently expanded to the African continent, after projects coming from the U.S.A., Europe and South East Asia.

by Luca Indemini (translation by Agnese Glauda)

The Precious Plastic project was created by Dave Hakkens, a Dutch young man. He designed a machine to recycle plastic at home while working on his master’s thesis.

Now, he has come a long way from the first model. In fact, four machines were designed four and the instructions are available for free on his website, together with video tutorials. Hence, users can build them independently and the costs are between 100 and 300 euros.

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The four recycling machines designed by Precious Plastic

Firstly, there is the Shredder Machine, which breaks down the plastics in very small pieces, easy to work with. Then, there is the Extrusion Machine, which transforms residuals in threads (useful, for instance, in 3D printing). The most advanced is the Injection Machine, which creates very specific items, with molds, in a short amount of time. Lastly, we find the Compression Machine, which creates larger items.

Only the products created through the recycling process can be a source of profit.

Joining the community is quick and simple. You only need to access the website and register on the map. In the beginning, the members were mainly FabLab, makers and geeks. Lately, also various organizations have joined, including training institutions and NGOs working in developing countries.

During the past six years, the community has grown considerably along with the ideas and shared experiences. This is what defines the project’s ‘open’ mindset.

Precious plastic in Africa

About thirty users with different backgrounds have joined the Precious Plastic initiative in the African continent. Some projects are less advanced, with the main goal to raise awareness regarding waste recycling. Others are already experienced businesses.

One of the most interesting projects is the Koun social enterprise, set in Casablanca, Morocco. The Precious Plastic website defines Koun as the ‘true recycling heroes’. A youth group collects the plastic waste to transform it into new items for the growing Moroccan middle class, searching for beautiful and ethical products. Stools, handbags, mugs, lamps, chandeliers and many more.

Up-cycling principles inspire Koun’s philosophy. In fact, up-cycling is the art of transforming waste into items worth more than the original. Koun collects raw materials directly from factories, schools and Casablanca associations. Then, turns waste into original products. The project has a positive social impact as it employs young disadvantaged people. Five of them work under the supervision of Mohamed, the foreman.

A different situation is found in Yoff near Dakar in Senegal, where Precious Plastic found its way to the hostel ViaVia. The hostel built three machines that cut, melt and press plastic into products, such as plates and bracelets. Karen, Jens, Masha, Jitse and Yehbonne, five Belgian students from the University of Leuven started this program. The AFD (Academics for Development) supported them while they volunteered during their summer vacations.

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The main venue of Precious Plastic in Africa

This was a first step but it has already proven quite successful. Many people from Dakar and the neighboring regions have expressed their interest towards the project and wish to build similar machines to fight plastic pollution.

Instead, in Kisii, Kenya, Precious Plastic started as a pilot project between 2017 and 2018. In that case, the UN-Habitat (UN program concerned with sustainable urbanization) invited Precious Plastic to create a plastic recycling workshop.

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The venue of Precious Plastic in Kisii, Kenya

The project had two main goals: to solve plastic pollution and counter youth unemployment. Currently, the Kiisi workshop employs 11 people. Additionally, it is especially in trying to educate the local population on pollution, through clean-up events in the area. Finally, the Precious Plastic machines turn plastic into bright coloured vases and plates.

Up until now, the project worked on a small scale. However, if the good results are confirmed, UN-Habitat is hoping to create new workshops in the region and in the whole country.

Hello Tractor, the sharing economy of Sub-Saharan African agriculture

Hello Tractor is an ag-tech company founded in 2014 in Nigeria. Its goal is to connect tractor owners with small farmers from Sub-Saharan Africa. The way is doing so is through an agricultural equipment rental app. The Hello Tractor platform allows farmers to request the service of a specific tractor. In exchange, the owners can check the tractor use, through remote tracking and virtual monitoring.

by Luca Indemini (translation by Agnese Glauda)

Africa is the region of the world where agricultural productivity is largely stagnant. Although it employs 65% of the continent population. One of the main causes is the low level of mechanization. In fact, 90% of the land is farmed manually or with the support of animals. By doing so, farmers are often living in extreme poverty, even though, in the last decade, billions have been invested by development organisations.

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Across Sub-Saharan Africa, 220 million farmers live on less than two dollars a day. Many of them struggle to produce enough food to feed their families and sustain their livelihoods. Tractors and other farm equipment are expensive and financing is almost non-existent.

“However, I realized that if farmers are able to have access to tractors, that’s as good as owning one.” – stated Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor CEO, interviewed by Disruptor Daily. “This was the rationale behind the establishment of Hello Tractor”.

How does Hello Tractor work?

Hello Tractor uses an IoT (Internet of Things) solution to reduce risks and improve transparency in the tractor sector. To do so, it offers equal access to tractors to the smaller farmers.

The core of the project is a low-cost monitoring device that can be installed on any tractor. This tool is very resistant to continuous use and extreme weather conditions. In addition, the device is equipped with an international SIM card, which allows Hello Tractor to connect to the cloud and share relevant data. If there is no connection, it can store data locally. Thus, tractor owners can monitor their tractor position, activity and need of maintenance through the app Tractor Owner.

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Hello Tractor interface for Owner and Booking Agent

The app represents the link between tractor owners and farmers. It allows farmers to select the real-time most convenient tractors. Moreover, a Booking Agent App has been created in order to facilitate the connection between farmers and tractors owners. Booking Agents are important mediators. They know well the local community well and they can use their knowledge to educate farmers and make them more familiar with mechanization techniques. Moreover, when aggregating different community needs, they find out that a sufficiently large area of ​​land is involved, the agent sends the request to the nearby owners of tractors.

Artificial Intelligence and blockchain in agriculture

Since moving its first steps, Hello Tractor has been used for 75% of the commercial tractors exchange in Nigeria. Additionally, it expanded over the national markets of Kenya, Mozambique, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the beginning of 2019, Hello Tractor established a new important partnership with IBM Research. Together they will develop advanced agricultural data analysis and decision tools, using Artificial Intelligence and blockchain. This service aims at supporting Hello Tractor activities by providing useful and timely information to help farmers improve their production. The platform uses a digital ledger and machine learning to capture, track and share data, useful for both farmers and tractor owners

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Machine learning will help predict crops results. These combined with the advanced analysis and blockchain, can be used to assign a credit score to loans. Meteorological data, provided by The Weather Company, satellite data and tractor IoT data will be incorporated into the app. This will help small farmers to make better decisions on when to plant, what to plant, which fertilizer to use.

Furthermore, machine learning and sensors will be of help for the tractors owners to manage their maintenance and future use, based on the historical and meteorological data, as well as remote sensing.

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Technology for development and the rights

Focsiv, and Impact Accri Hub organized a roundtable discussion in Trieste to talk about ICT and international cooperation.

The link between digital technologies and international cooperation is the theme of the roundtable entitled “ICTD4 – technology for development and rights” taking place November 14 to 18 in Impact Hub in Trieste.

ONG 2.0 is behind the organization of this initiative, within the ONG 2.0 framework. Silvia Pochettino, journalist and founder of ONG 2.0 will be there along with Marco Zennaro, researcher at the International Centre for theoretical physics Abdus Salam in Trieste, where he studies Telecommunications in developing countries. Gildas Guiella, Burkina Faso, founder of Ouagalab first Burkinabé fablab will be present via a remote connection. Tech Jjiguène, Senegal, will also intervene from remote, founder of a women-run hub sensitizing Senegalese women on technology and discrimination.

The main purpose of the meeting is to understand the role and potential of technology for development without ever losing sight of the importance of connection players coming from fields as distant as ICT and international cooperation.
Admission is free, but registration required.

For information: http://bit.ly/1wOwKND

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