Fatoumata Thiam (from Senegal) talks about her groundbreaking research on the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence in Agriculture, with broader implications for Africa's ambitions to embrace the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). Excerpts:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. I grew up between the city and my village, Diofior, about 150 kilometres away.
What inspired you about science and this specific discipline?
I interacted with science from a very early age because my father is a computer scientist. When I was young,he would to take me to his office where he allowed me to mess around -- draw, write, print and play -- on the computers. He also had access to the latest technology gadgets, which were at my disposal, as long as I wasn't destroying them, of course! As a result, I chose to study computer science at university.
My mathematics teacher in secondary school influenced my interest in mathematics and sciences because he taught us with patience and passion.
How did your early path in science progress?
I obtained a BSc in computer engineering in 2013 at Université de Thiès, Senegal. I then proceeded to theUniversity Cheikh Anta Diop still in Dakar, for an MSc in Distributed Information Systems, which I obtained in 2015.
I worked on a distributed architecture of Voice over IP (VoIP), which are networks that do not rely heavily on centralized server nodes to facilitate communication. For my MSc thesis, I worked on real-time storage techniques for Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN).
I consider my greatest achievement to be a two-year tenure as an engineer of telecommunications networks and services in the Department of Information Services at Thiès University in Senegal. Our mission was to set up a distributed authentication system for the university. It was a very challenging project that we managed brilliantly.
What is the focus of your PhD research?
In 2018, I commenced my PhD studies through the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), registered at the University Gaston Berger in Senegal. My research focus is on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as applied to agriculture and farming. I am assessing energy efficiency within irrigation networks and clean energy within solar-powered systems.
The aim is to develop an automated irrigation system that will compute the right amount of water for overall crop growth, ensuring that only the required amounts of water are supplied to the plants. The goal is to propose a solution that will optimize and automate the irrigation paradigm in the Niayes area in north-western Senegal.
Niayes has exceptionally favourable climate for farming and represents a natural base of agricultural production in Senegal. However, the region is experiencing increasing salt intrusion and destruction of the strip of Casuarina trees [that help prevent erosion], caused by speculation and irregular sale of land.
So far, I have been able to establish a mathematical model of reliability and accessibility based on energy efficiency. I also have an Internet of Things testbed and several projects are being built from it for novel publications, in the context of our research focus.
How does your research contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
My research has a cross-cutting impact on several SDGs. The need to regulate and optimize water resources, as well as the move to more sustainable farming systems is a shared concern in many developing countries and across the globe. This research will contribute much-needed knowledge towards this goal.
What are the broader implications of your research?
The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of IoT beyond the traditional focus of industrial applications. More human-centric applications of IoT have emerged, for example, in making visible the web of human connections as a critical part of the track and trace strategy to monitor and contain the spread of the virus.
Although our research focuses on agriculture, we are also assessing IoT in a more generic format, with extensive potential for broad transfer of the applications that we will develop.
Overall, this study provides strong evidence of the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa and the need for the continent to invest heavily in the necessary infrastructure, capacity and policies.