In a suburban housing area in Lilongwe, Malawi, 25-year-old Providence Maliro stares at a computer screen. Every few seconds, he shakes his head in wonder.
“It’s incredible what this computer program can do,” says the agricultural engineering graduate. “I’m sitting here but can monitor the temperature and humidity in that smart greenhouse in real-time.”
The computer programme he is referring to is a system inside a nearby greenhouse that uses sensors connected remotely to the room where he is seated. An equally equipped smart pond also sends him data.
Maliro, among the first cohort of agricultural trainees at a tech hub in the city, would previously have had to measure temperatures and humidity by hand, with a thermometer and wet-and-dry bulb, before labouriously converting them to relative humidity using a psychrometric chart.
“This new technology has made it more efficient,” he said
The training occurs at NxtGen Labs, a coding school and digital skills training centre. The course, which offers training in robotics with elements of machine learning or artificial intelligence, aims to prepare Malawi’s young agricultural engineers for the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.
That revolution and its potential impact on farming can’t come fast enough for the country, which has seen a burgeoning farming industry taper off in recent years as the country battled a series of increasingly powerful cyclones as well as armyworms and drought. These climate-related events were almost unheard of previously, and now they are regular occurrences.
In early March 2023, Cyclone Freddy, perhaps the most powerful storm the world has ever seen, triggered floods and landslips, displacing over 200,000 and claiming the lives of over 200 people.
The training programme at NxtGen Labs is being implemented with technical support from the Agribiz Hub, the innovation and incubation centre of the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).
“Combining artificial intelligence and big data will evolve into a high-tech industry,” explained Eugene Maseya, managing director of NxtGen Labs.
“These technologies allow for precision agriculture, such as yield monitoring, diagnosing insect pests, measuring soil moisture, diagnosing harvest time, and monitoring crop health status.”
Maseya believes farming has to be adaptive, where the amount and duration of rainfall can be monitored, but all this can only happen if data is leveraged through technology.
“Our education system has not evolved that much; it is a little bit rigid, and the authorities can’t change curricula that fast. But technology is moving so fast, so we need a way to keep up with the new technology and experiment to address the local problems,” he said.
“In particular, the Internet of things (IoT) measures temperature, humidity, and sunlight in production farms, making it possible for remote control via mobile devices. It will not only boost the production of the farms but also add to their value.”
Maliro is among eight graduates, including five men and three women, being trained in the first cohort. The program lasts ten weeks and requires the trainees to attend in-person classes at the NxtGen labs at least three times a week for a maximum of 3 hours per day.
“The program is open to students with degrees from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources who graduated in the previous three years and are younger than 35. We aim to enrol up to 40 in the subsequent cohorts,” said Maseya.
The lessons introduce the graduates to emerging technology, ranging from blockchain, machine learning and robotics, including how they can be applied to agriculture. In addition, they learn about business model generation, financial modelling and pitching their ideas to potential funders.
“In the greenhouse and the fish pond, they can monitor light conditions, humidity, water moisture and soil PH. We do that by using the sensors that we planted there that are completely programmable,” Maseya said.
According to the African Union’s recent report, Africa’s widespread dependence on rain-fed agriculture ‘calls for urgency in meeting commitments to climate action and disaster risk reduction’.
Joel Chilapondwa, 24, an agricultural economics student in the cohort, said the training had opened his eyes to the world’s possibilities and how he can combine technology and farming in his business.
“I already had a passion for the bee industry. Looking at how beekeepers suffer, I wanted to find innovation on how best the bees can be managed while ensuring farmers don’t lose colonies or honey. These lessons have helped me develop a tech solution,” he said.
Maseya doesn’t only manage NxtGen labs. He founded a drone company soon after attaining his degree in Mathematical Sciences at the University of Malawi in 2015. Blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) followed six years later.
But his passion lies in teaching agriculture graduates the technological skills needed to revolutionise farming practices in Malawi. NxtGen also has a wider education focus, helping prepare the country for a digital future.
“We have made our innovations, like the mathematical education application which will be used in the secondary school curriculum. We have made some virtual reality applications and experiences and virtual applications for a power utility company to monitor power systems through headsets,” he said.
The 30-year-old has a team of six teaching assistants, all skilled and experienced in computer programming.
“This is the biggest private space in the country dedicated to digital education outside a university. It’s a busy hub of activity most of the day, and we’ve people collaborating and working together. ” There is no classroom set up, no whiteboard, and no homework or teaching, just people working together and learning,” he said.
“I think the first cohort has been a great success. The business they have ideated on (is) a great use case with great potential in local agriculture.”
bird story agency