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New partnership launched to transform agriculture through AI

AGRF 2020

September 4th, 2019

According to a recent Harvard Business School Study, businesses created through artificial intelligence (AI) will add $US 16 trillion to global GDP by 2030.

“You think Amazon is big?” asked Strive Masiyiwa, Executive Chairman of Econet and Chairman of the AGRF Partners Group, reflecting on the future growth and value trajectory of AI. “There will be bigger companies than Amazon by 2030, thanks to AI.”

But AI is not about the future, said Masiyiwa. It’s about the here and now. “And we’re not talking about the present fears of AI, but the opportunities of AI in African agriculture. We want AI for Africa now!”

Which is why Masiyiwa and Econet, the African telecommunications giant, today announced a dynamic new partnership with Atlas AI, a small tech start-up from Silicon Valley. Atlas AI develops cutting-edge technology that leverages machine learning and satellite imagery to generate data and make accurate predictions for geographical areas. “It’s not about robots in fields,” said Masiyiwa, “it’s about assessing things like soil conditions and identifying crop disease.”

As David Lobell, one of Atlas AI’s key product developers, explained, “machines operate across different wave lengths and can see different things in the landscape – things we can’t see.” And this granular detail enables Atlas AI to create maps and make previously unimaginable agricultural estimates, from meter scale to country scale, about potential plot productivity – or about challenges such as drought.  

Until now, AI technology and machine learning have primarily been directed at first-world problems. “Now,” said Lobell, “it will be directed towards changing people’s lives.”

But in order to achieve reach and impact, every tech company needs a plan. As Victoria Coleman, CEO of Atlas AI, explained, “all the tech in the world doesn’t get you anything if you don’t have the right business model and executional capabilities.”

And this is where Econet comes in. While Coleman, Lobell and the Atlas AI team will focus on the technological developments and innovations, as part of the new partnership Econet will provide access to data and markets. Masiyiwa’s personal business guidance, influence and mentoring will also prove instrumental in helping Atlas AI expand.

“We want to take this machinery and change the world,” said Coleman. “Our goal is to build technology, but to bring it into the world, have impact and create a sustainable business model.”

The potential value of the venture to African agriculture is immense, enabling farmers to predict “with very high accuracy what a plot yield will be”, while also informing decisions about crop varieties and planting methods. “And if you multiply this across a whole country,” said Coleman, “you achieve huge impact.”

But while the focus is on positive change, rather than profit, the potential financial value of AI to Africa cannot be ignored. As Masiyiwa reflected, “Africa’s continental GDP is less than $US 3 trillion; if we can get $US 1 trillion of the GDP increase that will come from AI, we’ll have taken this continent on a great leap forward.”

With the potential to also drive innovations in healthcare, education and insurance, Atlas AI looks set to play a key role in Africa’s future. And through the newly launched partnership with Econet, there is every reason to believe the company will achieve long-term sustainable success.

As it expands, Atlas AI also plans to develop data platforms. “We want to make our data widely available and accessible,” said Coleman. “We want to give it to people and see what they can do with it.” In this way, the partnership will also help to build vital ecosystems, with data enabling the expansion of innovation and entrepreneurship.

As Masiyiwa concluded: “Data is the new oil. Who wants to go mining?”