How a Woman in STEM Became a Smallholder Ag Innovator

“One thing that people don’t know about me is that I’m a good dancer but terrible singer,” Dr. Neema Mduma told us, laughing.

It was a great way for her to close out our question-and-answer session—cheery and on a light note, while still beaming with optimism.

That about sums up our impression of Dr. Mduma’s personality. In addition to being a good dancer, Dr. Mduma also happens to be a highly talented computer scientist, and Grow Further is proud to partner with her on her latest research and development effort.

Neema Mduma is one of the lead researchers at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania. She came to the attention of Grow Further after she and her colleagues applied for one of our first research grants.

We first spoke with Dr. Mduma over the phone to learn more about her work in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Later, our founder and CEO Peter Kelly flew to Tanzania to meet the team at NM-AIST for a fact-finding and due diligence mission.

Later, Grow Further awarded the Institution with a grant to help Dr. Mduma and her team develop a smartphone app that’s smart enough to help smallholder farmers grow more food. “The biggest challenge of conducting agriculture research in Tanzania is lack of funds,” she told us during our Q&A with her in Arusha, echoing another sub-Saharan African researcher we spoke with. “You can find many researchers that have good ideas but they don’t have funds to conduct that research.”

Dr. Mduma and the other brilliant scientists and administrators at NM-AIST have expressed their gratitude to us, but the honor is ours. We think their latest R&D initiative has the potential to reach millions of farmers, delivering the power of AI to the palm of their hands.

A role model for women in science and math

Neema Mduma earned a PhD in information and communication sciences and engineering at NM-AIST. She’s now a senior lecturer there. Dr. Mduma knows how to program computers, but she focuses mostly on research into artificial intelligence and machine learning.

During our interview with her to learn more about her background and interests, Mduma confided that she hadn’t always intended to become a computer scientist.

“At first, I wanted to be a civil engineer because I was good at math, so my parents and teacher advised me to study science and become an engineer,” she explained. “But later on, I came to realize that the world is moving to a digital economy where everything is all about science and technology.”

“Then I decided to switch to science, specifically artificial intelligence and machine learning,” she added.

Mduma said she is happy with her decision to stay at NM-AIST for teaching and research. NM-AIST was first established in 2009.

“NM-AIST is a school of computational sciences and engineering, with a focus which aligns with my research interests,” she said.

Dr. Mduma told us that her two hobbies are cooking and traveling. It’s fortunate that she enjoys travel. To date, she said she’s visited about 20 countries to give presentations on her research.

Dr. Mduma has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed research publications. She’s still in the early years of her career and already holds an array of accomplishments under her belt. Dr. Mduma is the recipient of other research grants, not just ours, including a grant from the Lacuna Fund for agricultural research. She won an award from UNESCO and the Fondation L’Oréal recognizing women in science. She’s an alum of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a program by the US Department of State. She also was a member of the Global Young Academy which fosters youth scientists.

Realizing that her story and career path could be an inspiration to other African women, Dr. Mduma says she’s trying her best to be a role model for them. “I am the founder of the BakiShule Initiative which aims at promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to girls in Tanzania,” she pointed out, proudly.

Tech-enabled smallholder farming

AI and machine learning are complex technologies, but Dr. Mduma is hoping to deliver to smallholder farmers a simple, easy-to-use AI and machine learning-based tool that will help them keep an eye on their crops’ conditions and alert them to problems early on.

As she told us in her grant application and our earlier conversation with her, NM-AIST hopes to develop a smartphone application that will allow small-scale farmers to notice the earliest signs of crop diseases or pest infestations. By receiving these early warnings, it’s hoped that farmers can stave off disaster and reap bountiful harvests year after year.

It’s a deceptively simple concept.

First, a farmer would photograph plants growing in the fields. Next, the application would harness the power of online networks to analyze the images. Relying on a huge trove of digital data, the smartphone app could then either tell the farmer that those spots on the maize plants are nothing to worry about or sound the alarm that the field is under attack by pests or disease.

Dr. Mduma is fully aware that not all smallholder farmers possess smartphones. NM-AIST has a plan to get around this. “We are targeting to work with agricultural stakeholders including farmers, agricultural extension officers, students, and researchers,” she explained. The main thing is to develop the technology and then get it out to as many hands working on or researching farms as possible.

Currently, her team is busy developing the app and gathering a massive quantity of data and images from fields to help the AI-based software know what signs of crop diseases and pests look like. Mduma says this treasure trove of data will eventually be shared with the entire world for free as an open-source database. As they get close to rolling out their innovative smartphone tool, Dr. Mduma says they’ll first focus on spreading the word to farms in northern Tanzania, close to NM-AIST’s base. “Specifically, Arusha, Kilimanjaro, and Manyara,” she said.

Dr. Mduma and NM-AIST have relatively modest goals for this potentially transformative technology they are working hard to deliver. “We are targeting to reach 45,000 beneficiaries by 2025 and 400,000 beneficiaries by 2030,” Mduma told us.

Grow Further thinks the potential number of beneficiaries far exceeds this. As a free downloadable app, it seems reasonable that millions of farmers well beyond Tanzania will eventually find it helpful to their businesses, especially because NM-AIST is enlisting the help of farmers to develop the app. “The benefit of doing that research in that area is you learn a lot from farmers, and that will help you to improve the work that you are doing,” she said.

Dr. Mduma doesn’t need to be a good singer or dancer to help farmers in Tanzania and beyond grow more food, but she does need funding support. We’re happy to lend a hand in that department.

“Personally, I would like to thank Grow Further for giving us this opportunity,” she told us. “We do believe that through this project we are going to develop a solution that is going to help smallholder farmers to easily detect diseases, and this will then increase their yields and food production.”

Grow Further is pleased that Dr. Neema Mduma and the other brilliant minds at NM-AIST found us and took the time to apply for one of our grants. We are truly excited to see what their research and development project delivers for better food security.

 

 — Grow Further

Photo credits: True Vision Productions.

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