How technology in agriculture can reduce extreme poverty — Nigeria’s Robotic Engineer

Ndubuisi Ekekwe
Ndubuisi Ekekwe

Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a serial high school distinction scholar, is also a holder of four master’s degrees, two doctorates in Management and Microelectronics, and in Electrical Electronics & Computer Engineering, specialising in Robotics and Neuromorphic systems, from the John Hopkins University in the United States.

He is an engineering graduate of the Federal University of Technology (FUTO), Owerri.

He spoke with Business Editor, Bassey Udo, on how the marriage of technology and agriculture can reduce extreme poverty.

Excerpts:

PT: Despite its best efforts, Nigeria, and indeed Africa, has not been able to produce enough food her citizens. How can we make agriculture work for us?

EKEKWE: The simple challenge is that our environment has a lot of inefficiencies in our production systems, not just in agriculture, but across all other sectors. Agriculture occupies a significant place in our growth matrix.

Most of our citizens work in the agricultural sector. Our gross domestic product is heavily affected by agriculture. If we can fix agriculture, technically we can fix many things in Africa.

If we double our agricultural productivity, we can reduce extreme poverty by 2030. We cannot do this by scaling what we have been doing for centuries, which resulted in mass poverty in a community of farmers.

We must look for a new paradigm, by bringing a new technology to make our farmers think smarter, work more efficiently and be capable in utilizing factors of production in the agricultural business.

So, it is no more a case of the farmer going to buy his cutlass or hoe, but more of how he can scale his business systems in the agricultural space using technology.

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The principle is simple: the farmer must be able to make decisions with certainty about what his farm wants, and not necessarily guesses of what our ancestors wanted, with no consideration to what the crops want.

Our ancestors made agricultural decisions on the hope that, because they offered sacrifices, the gods would give them a bumper harvest.

In the 21st century, if we can connect and have a battalion of farmers in our agricultural ecosystem, we can redesign the wellbeing of our citizens.

There is no Nigerian that is not connected to a family member at first or second level involvement in agriculture. So, if we fix agriculture, we can fix Nigeria.

PT: How do you fix Nigeria, practically, through agriculture?

EKEKWE: The only way we can make that happen is to make agriculture a business. We should not have farmers who are custodians of culture; who just go to the farm, because that’s a way of life. We should have farmers who go to the farm and make decisions to grow the bottom line. So, if a farmer goes to the corn, yam or cassava farm, he should make decisions that will affect the end-game of having a good yield at the end of the farming season.

If a farmer’s crop is not doing well because it is not getting enough water or other nutrients, how does he know before the harvest period?

This is where technology comes in. Technology will tell the farmer with certainty that his crops are not getting enough water, and the need to provide an irrigation facility to supply water, if there is no rain.

When that is done, the farmer can add about 85 percent of the total yield from the farmland.

Or technology will tell you whether a farmer’s crops need nitrogen or not. Or whether the fertilizer supplied by the government is full of nitrogen phosphate. There are a lot of mismatch, because of working based on guess work.

But, we can bring engineering into the agricultural process by saying the crops do not really need nitrogen, but some phosphorous and potassium.

Technology will help the farmer to advice government that if fertilizer is to be sent to the particular region in the country, it should be the type that have more potassium and phosphorous, because that is what the crops there will benefit from.

Ndubuisi Ekekwe

Ndubuisi Ekekwe
Ndubuisi Ekekwe

In that case, everyone is not doing things blindly. Decisions will be made based on data. That is one way to help the farmers.

There is also the element for the government. When farmers are given fertilizer, unfortunately some of them sell them. But, with technology, the farmer can make it easy for government to know within two weeks if the farmer does not use the fertilizer.

So, technology will make government not give fertilizer to farmers blindly without knowing whether the fertilizers are used or not.

Technology will tell the farmer the nutritional differential, either in phosphorous potassium, calcium or whatever the farmer needs in the fertilizer.

The technology will use the leaves of the plant to validate the changes that have taken place after the fertilizer was added by the farmer.

If there are 4 million farmers that government wants to support with 100,000 extension workers, it is possible that the output from them may not cover the total cost of those extension workers.

But, with technology, instead of using 100,000 extension workers, maybe 50,000 could be used.

With technology, one can stay in his office and monitor 2,000 farmers efficiently and effectively.

Technology will make it easy for the farmer to achieve marginal cost, which is the ability to serve the extra customer, as it turns down to zero.

With technology, most of the monies government is spending in agriculture will actually go into agricultural processing itself and not the mechanics of helping farmers, which is where so much money is spent, yet the farmers do not actually get enough.

We have seen how technology is working in companies’ logistics, where a cargo owner will stay in his office and see where his items are at any point in time.

The truck driver will also know how much money he’s being paid. There is an equilibrium point converging on a platform; bringing visibility, transparency and efficiency in the utilization of factors of production in the agricultural system.

PT: Can you say how technological applications can help agriculture?

EKEKWE: The technology I am talking about is called Zenvus, which is an electronic sensor in three different products.

The Zenvus Smart Farm is one that is put in the soil to collect information, like temperature, moisture, humidity, electro-conductivity of the soil.

If that data is sent through Wifi, GSM or satellite into cloud computing infrastructure to develop algorithm that will analyze all the data from the farm and used to tell the farmer what to do about his farm, it might tell the farmer when he does not have enough water in the farm for the crops and the need to irrigate the farm within a certain period of time. It will tell the farmer when to expect rainfall and other environmental conditions.

Ndubuisi Ekekwe
Ndubuisi Ekekwe

As the crops begin to grow, the farmer can read from the leaves what is happening with them.

If images of the leaves are taken using Zenvus Yield to analyze and get insights into how healthy the crops are. The farmer cannot see what is going on with his naked eyes. But, the technology will give indicators about the ingredients the crops are lacking, or a pest or disease that are attacking them.

When all the data from the vegetation and the soil are converged, the farmer can see a 360 degrees of the state of the farm. Based on that information, the farmer can say how, when and the best possible things he can do to improve yield in the farm.

It is an irony that a community of farmers, like in Nigeria, are hungry. That is what is happening in most communities in Nigeria.

Why it is that way is because the farmers are not effective in their agricultural systems. This is where the technology element is coming into play. Technology is not voodoo magic. It is more like guiding the farmer to have better yield.

Nigeria is one of the best countries in the world. We have a large expanse of arable land for agriculture. There are countries that want to farm, but don’t even have land or weather.

Now, if the farmer has produced the agricultural output and he wants to send it to the cities or factory, there are lots of leakages there. Unfortunately, we still have middlemen that are not playing by the rules.

For instance, the farmer can pack baskets or cartons of their products in trucks to supply to the buyers.

They farmer might be tracking the trucks conveying the products. But, this is not very effective, because someone might take off the items from the truck and still drive the empty truck to the destination the products should have been delivered and the owner will still be tracking the empty truck as if indeed the products were delivered.

We hear of cases where petroleum products meant for delivery to certain parts of the country are siphoned by the marketer into underground tanks and later diverted to other places, while the empty trucks with the tracking devices are driven to the place it was supposed to have been delivered.

But, the Zenvus Loci is different. It is a GPS with an in-built battery life that can last up to seven days without being connected to a power source.

If it is dumped in a container or bag for seven days, from his phone, the owner will know where the bag is.

If the farmer is shipping some farm equipment, and he wants to know where those items are at any point in time, he can do so with the technology.

So, if I have 50 suppliers of cassava to produce starch and I can predict that the supplies are coming within seven days, I can plan. These are technologies to help farmers in production.

There are also other forms of technology that help farmers to market their products as well as those to help in raising capital.

The Zenvus Manager is called the Electronic Farm Diary. A good small and medium enterprise (SME) entrepreneur, as a businessman, he has a book-keeping habit for goods that come in or the ones that have left the company.

Our farmers don’t think that way. But, the Zenvus Manager will help the farmer take care of that.

Just like electronic farm diary that records the number of hours the farmer or extension workers work in the farm in a day throughout the farming season.

The farmer will be able to determine the efforts put in by different people in production process, in terms of application of fertilizer and the cost.

At the end of the season, the farmer can determine the cost of inputs, to be able to know the price of the products to be able to break even.

There is also the Zenvus Capital, which is designed to allow the farmer share his farm data with a bank to stand him in a better a chance of being granted loans that would enable him to grow production.

The Zenvus Insure can also be useful for the farmer to insure his farm. There is the Zenvus Craft Fund and Zenvus Pricing for other services. There is also the Zenvus Markets, which is the technology that helps the farmer reach bigger markets for his products.

National Assembly members can also use the technology to track their constituency projects in their local communities. The GPS in the sensor will help locate the exact location the farms or projects are situated anywhere on earth.

There is also the Zenvus Boundary, which is a technology for surveying the farmlands.

If the farmer has the technology in his phone, if he walks round the perimeters of his farm and at the end presses the submit button, the technology will automatically take the GPS data and maps and super-imposes it on the Google Earth through the satellite, telling the farmer the exact location of his farmland. It will capture all features on the farmland, including trees and rivers.

PT: How affordable is this technology to the average farmer?

EKEKWE: It does not cost much. One does not need as much as N200,000 to have it. But, farmers can negotiate.

It is a device designed for four years, but the farmer can use it for seven farming seasons.

The technology was not designed individual farmers to buy. We see it as a farm input, just like the way government gives fertilizers to farmers. We want government to give the technology to farmers as they give fertilizers. As seedlings are being given to cooperatives, the technology should be given along. This is an essential agricultural input of the 21st century.

What’s the essence of giving the farmer fertilizer if he does not understand the need for it, or how to use it? We can remove guess work in agriculture and replace it with data with technology.

PT: Are you having discussion with policy makers and decision makers in government to have their buy in on the use of this technology?

EKEKWE: We are discussing with some members of the National Assembly, the Central Bank of Nigeria, Ministry of Agriculture and such agencies. We are hoping that there will be a fundamental shift from the past where agriculture was pursued with guess work.

PT: How did you come by this technology?

EKEKWE: Well, let start from my background. I am a village boy from Ovim in Isikwator Local Government Area of Abia State. I went to the Federal University of Technology, Owerri before moving to the United States where I developed a lot of competencies in electrical electronics engineering from the John Hopkins University in the United States.

I build Robots that operate on human beings. I have a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering, and specialize in Robotics. I also build micro-processors, the type that is essentially neuromorphic systems designed to emulate human biology.

Then, I resolved to take a little bit of my time to help my local community. I took time to understand the farming system in my community. As a child, I grew up with my grandmother. I used follow her to the farm during the planting seasons.

Having been involved in the development of technology, I said how can I use my knowledge of technological advancement, particularly my knowledge of the human system, to solve the problems in the farming system in the country?

I received the support of the U.S government through the USAID in the development of the technology. I deliberately did not want to raise capital from investors, since the technology was not for money making, but to help build the community to give the people a better life.

We have been working on developing new crop models. I am happy about the impact it is creating already.

I am hopeful that if every young person working in the agriculture space can double farming productivity, extreme poverty will be reduced.

There is no other way to have a catalytic impact in the life of our citizen than agriculture, because everyone is connected to it.

I was still in the Primary School in 1986 when the cassava mosaic disease broke out in the country.

But, it took Nigerian agricultural researchers less than six months to create a new variety of cassava stems that was resistant to the mosaic disease.

There was a clear famine that was coming to the country if that was not achieved. That disease affected one of the country’s most staple food crops. So, there is really nothing this country cannot do if means to. That is why I always say $1trillion economy is possible if we want.

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