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With power of big data, student’s startup aims to halt famine, food insecurity in Africa

Featured photo
Tatenda Ndambakuwa.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Tatenda Ndambakuwa grew up in Zimbabwe, and vividly remembers the country’s food crisis in 2008 that left her and millions of others facing starvation. Now, Ndambakuwa, a junior double majoring in math and physics at Virginia Commonwealth University, is seeking to prevent future famines in Africa with the power of big data.

Ndambakuwa, a student in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-founder of a startup that is developing a mobile application to allow African farmers to upload data about their farm’s livestock and crop management, seed and feed access, milk production analysis, cattle pricing and other data points. The app will allow for real-time analyses of Africa’s food production system, allowing policymakers and others to make the system far more efficient.

“We hear about all these famines or food insecurity or places where there’s not just enough food, but Africa’s a continent where agriculture is the biggest revenue-generating industry,” Ndambakuwa said. “So why are we not producing enough food for the people? For those countries that are producing the food, why aren’t they sending it to those who need it the most?”

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“So, I thought: OK, we need timely and accurate data to map out food insecurity and food deserts because oftentimes the World Food Programme and nongovernmental organizations will come into countries when there’s already a food crisis,” she said. “But if we can collect the right data, can we not stop a crisis in advance?”

The startup, called “Dbuntu” — a combination of “data” with the Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity,” or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” — is aiming to roll out the beta version of its mobile application in December.

It will launch first in Uganda, where the team field-tested the app last summer at a major dairy farm, and then plans to scale up in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

The idea is that small-scale farmers will upload raw data for their individual farm’s production from their mobile phones, which have been widely adopted across Africa because of the popularity of mobile money applications.

“With a mobile application, we will be able to reach people — even those in remote areas — from their phones. And, using the mobile application, we can tell things like how much farmers are producing, and be able to tell, is it efficient?” Ndambakuwa said. “You can see, for example, when a farm’s granaries are starting to run out of food. With that data, you could tell when we’re approaching a crisis. So can we not prevent people from starving? Can we not take steps to prevent famine before it’s already too late?”

We’re giving the farmers the tools they need to maximize their agricultural efficiency.

With farmers providing data, policymakers and others will be better able to answer questions: How much food is being produced? How much is projected to be produced next year? And, if there are fluctuations, what is behind that?

“With the data, we hope over time we’ll be able to, say, put red flags over a particular region because they didn’t produce as much,” Ndambakuwa said. “But, at the same time, we also hope we’d be able to prevent [those shortages] because we’re giving the farmers the tools they need to maximize their agricultural efficiency.”

To incentivize farmers to participate, the application will provide a number of additional features and services that will help them. For example, the team is looking to provide the ability to link farmers with nearby trucks that can drive their product to market.

“It could let someone say, ‘OK, I’m going to this dairy exchange and I can pick up this number of dairy farmers in this area,’ and then they can go pick up the farmers and drive them to sell their produce in the city,” Ndambakuwa said. “That could make [the food production system] more efficient, and avoid spoilage.”

The application may also enable farmers to exchange commodities between one another and even share expertise and information.

“Let’s say you’re a dairy farmer and you’re producing more milk, and you need corn, then [the application] could let you network with corn producers,” she said.

They are also hoping to integrate access to microfinance organizations, such as the Grameen Foundation, enabling farmers to easily access available financial services.

Ndambakuwa, who previously worked on global nutrition issues as an intern at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has, along with her Dbuntu teammates, recently enjoyed success at several national entrepreneurship competitions.

In early April, Dbuntu was a finalist at Smith College’s Fifth Annual Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs, which offers undergraduate women students from across the country a chance to pitch new business ventures to a panel of judges. And, in March, Dbuntu won the Stumberg Venture Competition at Trinity University, where a few of Ndambakuwa’s friends and Dbuntu colleagues are studying.

In October, Ndambakuwa will take part in the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative University, which supports students’ projects focused on education, the environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation or public health.

The da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the ArtsBusinessEngineering, and College of Humanities and Sciences, provided Ndambakuwa with mentorship and financial support to attend the Draper competition in Massachusetts.

Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, said Ndambakuwa’s work is a prime example of what the da Vinci Center teaches its students.

“She didn't just solve one problem by designing a mobile application, she solved multiple problems through employing an empathy driven innovation process,” he said. “I'm incredibly proud of Tatenda, and her success is indicative of what you find at VCU — students who cross disciplines, leverage all their available resources in pursuit of success, and choose to work on solving social challenges at scale.”

Ndambakuwa calls Dbuntu a “data-centric think tank” and she plans to possibly expand to other areas of need, such as health care, that could benefit from harnessing the potential of big data. For now, though, the team is focused on hunger.

“We have the technology and systems in place that can bring efficiency to food production. It is unacceptable that people should be going hungry,” she said. “There’s no excuse why anyone should be going to bed hungry. It’s not like a rare disease where people are trying to figure out how to cure it. We know efficient ways to produce food. So we are trying to just bring that technology to the ground and help make [the food production system] more efficient.”

 

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