Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to fast-track the fight against malnutrition in Africa

Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to fast-track the fight against malnutrition in Africa

This morning, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) will spearhead a task force uniting experts from tech companies like Facebook with top agricultural specialists from the Africa Development Bank, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and other international organizations at the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, to develop a road map and decide how cutting-edge technology can be used to tackle malnutrition in Africa.

The high-level breakfast meeting “Enhancing Africa’s Nutrition Resilience through Artificial Intelligence,” brings together Dr. Agnes Kalibata, AGRA President;  Global Panel President – and former Head of State in Ghana, John Kufuor – with tech companies and development organizations, to guide next steps to roll out a Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS), in support of the African Development Bank’s U$ 1.1 billion ‘Say No to Famine‘ framework.

With one in four people in sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, and famine and food shortages already affecting South Sudan and looming in northern Nigeria and Somalia, the approach aims to fast-track solutions to meet global commitments to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

“There is no doubt that Africa is on the cusp of a golden age, with immense potential, powered through brain power,” said CIAT’s Africa Director, Dr. Debisi Araba. Twenty-five percent of Africa’s population suffer from chronic malnutrition, which means they cannot fully harness their potential – their brain power – to contribute to our collective economic growth, he added.

Dr. Mercy Lung’aho, CIAT’s nutritionist leading the NEWS task force, said: “Things have to change: we have to use a different approach. Previous responses to malnutrition have relied on crisis data – from areas already in crisis mode. Today, we’re discussing how to analyze data from a range of sources, diagnosing crises well before they happen, allowing decision makers to respond and tackle malnutrition threats well before they show up on any map.”

According to the white paper released in May this year, NEWS also highlights gaps in the current global response to malnutrition, including: reactive instead of proactive global responses; interventions that are currently limited to households and community level instead of coordinated at a national level; a lack of data enabling decision-makers to act; and inadequate measures used to detect often subtle factors leading to food shortages before chronic malnutrition sets in. These will be discussed during the session.

A united response against hunger: Activating a Nutrition Early Warning System

NEWS outlines an innovative way to fight food insecurity and malnutrition based on a technique known as machine learning. Computers track complex and constantly changing data in order to “learn” and make predictions. NEWS would apply this technology to search for early signs of crop failures, drought, rising food prices, and other factors that can trigger food shortages. Over time it would become “smarter” and more accurate.

CIAT leads the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, which has already seen success using big data approaches to tackle agricultural challenges. In 2014, rice farmers in Colombia avoided potentially catastrophic losses after CIAT experts used a machine learning algorithm to analyze weather and crop data. It revealed drought on the horizon, and farmers were advised to skip a planting season, saving them more than US$3 million in input costs.

Bottom line: “paradigm shift” needed

Joining forces with the Modeling Early Risk Indicators to Anticipate Malnutrition (MERIAM) project, new insights will be presented to shed light on current monitoring systems, and focus on a shift in the way nutrition security is conceptualized and forecasted. Participants will discuss appropriate local and regional responses, identifying the factors driving nutrition crises, and designing nutrition interventions to mitigate shocks on households and communities.

“We are among a growing number of scientists who recognize that we must get better at managing food and nutrition security while building long-term resilience in Africa’s food systems – and we have to activate a Nutrition Early Warning System and act now,” said Dr. Lung’aho.

The meeting will bring together CGIAR Centers; United Nations organizations including the Food and Agriculture Organization, The United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the  World Economic Forum among other development and funding partners;  as well as higher learning institutions such as the Graduate Institute Geneva, Cornell University, and Johns Hopkins University, in addition to private sector institutions including Apple, Facebook, University of Sheffield, Microsoft, Gapminder, and United Nations Global Pulse.

The Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) leverages big data and machine learning to track, monitor and prevent crises before they strike.

The AGRF high-level breakfast meeting is held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on Thursday, September 7th, 07:00hrs – 08:30hrs.