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Hack4Moz – Technology at the Service of Agriculture

Hack4Moz – Technology at the Service of Agriculture

What if farmers could talk to a Mozambican Artificial Intelligence application that “looks” at plants? Or use another to prevent pests? Students and aspiring programmers demonstrated their ideas at an event organised by the Geospatial Development Agency.

There’s no denying that technology can play a major role in various aspects of modern agribusiness these days, aiming to increase the productivity of fields while using an intelligent management approach. In many parts of the world, technology is already helping farmers to increase yields without having to expand their production space. These practices do not go unnoticed by young technology enthusiasts. And from this was born a passion that, in the same space, a so-called ‘hackathon’ (meeting of programmers), brought together young Mozambicans who will try to map, identify and solve the various problems that afflict small farmers in rural areas of Mozambique.

First of all, what is a hackathon?

It’s a programming marathon that can last from 24 hours to three days, a term that comes from combining the English words “hack” (in the sense of programming in an exceptional way) and “marathon” (marathon). At these events, participants have the opportunity to create ideas and put them into practice through programming, with the aim of competing for prizes, meeting other professionals in the field, exchanging ideas or taking part in a collaborative project in a specific programming environment. What makes an event of this nature special is the collaboration in the face of a challenge, a kind of intangible magic that occurs whenever a group of people focussed on a single objective come together to achieve a specific goal. In the end, they make a presentation in front of a jury. Of course, not all ideas are winners and this is where the most essential aspect comes in: it has to be a good idea!

The merits of the hackathon process are recognised by the technology industry and there is no shortage of such events run by well-known companies. This is the case with Netflix, which holds several hack days throughout the year with the aim of creating new ways for its service. There are also cases of big businesses that have emerged from accelerated programming competitions. This is the case with GroupMe, a text messaging application that was created during the TechCrunch Disrupt fair in 2010 and received more than 10 million dollars in investment – it was later bought by Microsoft and integrated into the Skype family, generating more than 80 million dollars in turnover to date. Another famous app born out of a hackathon is EasyTaxi, a kind of Brazilian Uber, which initially began as a bus monitoring programme, but became the winning project at Startup Weekend Rio in 2011. The pair of creators won over investors, the app reached more than 30 countries and 420 cities and was sold for many millions of dollars.

The Hack4Moz marathon

The 3rd edition of Hack4Moz was organised by the National Geospatial Development Agency (ADE) with the support of Standard Bank, Higest, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Mozambican programmers’ community (Mozdev) and the company that sells agricultural raw materials AQI. This edition took place on 17, 18 and 19 November at the Standard Bank business incubator in Maputo, with the aim of devising a digital platform for sharing information, knowledge and collaboration between the entities involved in the agricultural value chain.

It was in this context that programmers, computer engineering students (for the most part) and some self-taught people with a passion for programming, organised into 11 groups made up of five members (in total there were more than 50 young programmers), were challenged to create innovative solutions focused on the area of agriculture.

“We got together to organise another edition of a marathon that has been running since 2019, and the focus is on finding solutions to solve real problems. We know that we have a very large community of programmers and graphic designers, around 400 people, who are available to develop solutions for our lives. With this initiative, we want to bring them together and enable organisations or sectors that have problems whose solutions depend on a technological solution to use the ideas of these young people,” explained Marlene Mendes Manave, head of business development and institutional relations at ADE.

In the case of this marathon, the aim is to achieve Mozambican solutions. There were around 55 people on site, including boys, girls and some adults, the result of a selection made from around 250 candidates who responded to the organisation’s invitation.

“This marathon is about the agricultural value chain. We were looking for young people who had already participated in some way in projects in the sector. That was the selection method. On the other hand, we also looked at innovation proposals and selected 55. We hope to have the best candidates here for a three-day, non-stop race, looking for solutions to share with the sector, with a view to agricultural development,” she said.

What makes an event of this nature special is the collaboration in the face of a challenge, a kind of intangible magic that occurs whenever a group of people come together focussed on a single objective

ADE is involved because it has a “responsibility” to promote “harmonised data production”. “Only with information and data is it possible to know the best direction for projects. The aim is to have a concept or at least a prototype of what a platform for collaboration between all the players in agriculture could look like.”

After the event, it is hoped that the solutions will be developed, and it will be ADE’s responsibility to seek support and resources for the young people selected to continue with the idea.

“Why agriculture?”

Alexandra Antunes, representing the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – which provides technical assistance to ADE – highlighted the role of the UN agency’s Acceleration Lab, a partner that has collaborated in the success of the initiative. “We’re in a country where around 70 to 80 per cent of the population makes a living from agriculture. That’s why we see the importance of this area for Mozambique’s sustainable development. With this hackathon, we want to try to understand what kind of solutions can be generated,” he said.

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The Deputy Minister of Transport and Communication, Amilton Alissone, who also spoke on the occasion, explained that agriculture is a vital sector for Mozambique’s economy, maintaining that a large part of the population contributes significantly to the Gross Domestic Product (between 23% and 25%, according to Mozambican government figures). However, the way in which information related to the agricultural value chain is made available means that this sector faces significant challenges that can jeopardise its efficiency, equity and sustainability.

Solutions are expected to be developed, and it is ADE’s responsibility to seek support and resources for the young people selected to continue the idea

“The availability of up-to-date, high-quality, accessible and interoperable data and information is essential for guiding policies and programmes, attracting investment, improving agricultural practices and ensuring the best distribution of production,” he said. He also emphasised that, “with this marathon, the expectation is to see the community of innovators of technological and geospatial products strengthened, while at the same time promoting an environment of innovation and collaboration between enthusiasts of technological solutions”.

Innovative solutions

Even before the teams got down to work designing the technological platforms, E&M spoke to representatives of two teams who gave us an insight into what they were going to do over the two days of the marathon. Olinda da Costa, representing the Agritech Innovators group, who, as well as being a student, is already a computer support technician in EP programming, intends to gain “a lot of experience”, exchange ideas “with colleagues in the field and manage to develop a platform that can help solve some of the problems in the agricultural sector”. “The idea we bring is aimed at the lack of information in the sector. We want to bring new farmers into the area, especially young people,” with a platform based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will provide a chat area that anyone can access to get information on how to plant their crops. “With the same technology, we’ll make it possible for farmers to have photos of their plants processed, through AI, to give details about their condition. At the same time, the platform will issue alerts about bad weather so that farmers can prepare,” explained Olinda da Costa.

Another participant, Ailton Baúque, an information technology student, is part of a group that aims to create a platform that identifies pests and shows farmers how they can prevent them, while suggesting what should be done to products that are suffering an attack. “During the two-day marathon, we intend to create a prototype of the platform so that it is as efficient as possible and wins over the judges. We hope to win and, above all, to see our platform come to life and help Portuguese farmers,” said the programmer.

And because, at the moment, what the country needs most are disruptive solutions to meet basic development needs, it makes sense to combine such a recent and promising area with a traditional sector like agriculture. On the developers’ side, it is believed that the solutions created will have bridged the gap between the two areas.
the two areas.

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