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Ideating and innovating. Improving life in Africa.

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“I certainly don’t think the knowledge that we have now will sustain us in 10 to 20 years’ time,” says Eugene Ndlovu. “Everything is changing so quickly. We need to continue to reskill ourselves if we are going to remain competitive during the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and the industrial revolutions to come.”

Ndlovu is a third-year Business Information Technology student at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and a member of the university’s Technopreneurship Centre. The centre was originally established by the Department of Applied Information Systems in 2018, but later moved to the School of Consumer Intelligence and Information Systems for strategic positioning. It seeks to provide the digital training necessary to equip students with critical 4IR skills — skills they can use to ideate and innovate, and to come up with practical solutions to real-life problems.

“The Technopreneurship Centre isn’t only for IT students, but everyone who is willing to contribute positively to the centre,” says Ronny Mabokela, a lecturer in the Department of Applied Information Systems, and the centre’s head. “It’s completely interdisciplinary. The students who use it come from departments as far afield as marketing and education, and are mentored by leading academic and industry experts.” The centre actively fosters collaboration and, in this way, helps students to develop disruptive and effective solutions they might not have considered without the help of their peers. 

Winning awards at Hacklab 2021

In April 2021, two teams from the Technopreneurship Centre, the Technopreneurs and the Binary Wolves, competed in an international virtual hackathon in Ghana and walked away with two of the top awards. While the Technopreneurs won the Best Artificial Intelligence (AI) Solution in Big Data award, the Binary Wolves won the award for the Best AI Solution in Healthcare.

The event, Hacklab 2021, is the largest hackathon in West Africa, and was attended by over 1 000 participants, including developers, designers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, industry partners and other technology stakeholders. This year’s theme was focused on leveraging AI to drive digital transformation in Africa.

“The hackathon was a massive learning experience for all of us — and of course it was wonderful to win,” says Mabokela. “It was great to learn what others across the continent are doing, and to discover how strategically aligned our objectives are. So many of our African colleagues are also focused on advancing systems and processes in agriculture and healthcare. Education was another common topic.”

Empowering farmers

The Technopreneurs focused their work on Ghana’s agriculture sector. “Ghana is the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa, after its neighbour, Côte d’Ivoire,” says Ndlovu. “But while they’re similar in size and are affected by the same climate conditions, Côte d’Ivoire produces almost two-and-a-half times the volume of cocoa. We wanted to know: what are the factors affecting cocoa production in Ghana?”

The major problems, the team’s research showed, centred on the prevalence of pests and diseases, and on farmers’ lack of awareness on how to deal with these issues effectively. “We realised that we needed to create a solution that makes important information available to farmers quickly and easily,” Ndlovu adds.

The result was an AI and internet of things model that identifies crop leaves and their deficiencies, such as a lack of nitrogen and potassium, and works with a sensor to analyse climatic conditions. Through an application programming interface that the team designed, all of this information can now be sent to farmers’ mobile devices, enabling them to make informed decisions in real time.

“Although we applied our solution to Ghana in this instance, it has relevance across Africa and could be used in the farming of a variety of commodities,” says Emmanuel Mbuya, another Technopreneurs member. “Winning the award was an amazing experience. We believe that the agricultural industry has such potential to increase revenue and GDP across the continent, and our solution could really contribute to growth in this space.”

Saving lives

The Binary Wolves’ solution, on the other hand, was focused on improving services offered in the healthcare sector. “Our research revealed that many unnecessary deaths occur because emergency response vehicles are unable to respond adequately to critical situations,” says Binary Wolves team member Patience Mokokota. “Ambulances often take too long to arrive on site, and sometimes deliver patients to hospitals that don’t have the capacity to deal with them, either in terms of beds or staff.”

Binary Wolves’ solution comprised an AI-powered platform, LESEDI, that allows emergency response teams to track and dispatch vehicles to the right areas at the right time. “Users of the app can identify available ambulances and monitor the capacity of nearby hospitals,” says Janice Nsunzu, another team member. LESEDI was built from scratch at the Technopreneur Centre without the involvement of external parties. 

“Winning an award was a reminder that we’re really in a position to make a difference and help people,” Nsunzu adds.

Looking to the future

The centre currently has about 10 projects running at various stages of development and across a range of topics. “We want the centre to be a breeding ground for tech solutions that help people — and, especially, that help people to find work,” says Mabokela. “We believe that 4IR presents incredible opportunities in terms of employment. While some jobs will inevitably fall away, many more will become available as people reskill and upskill.”

“With the right funding, projects like the ones we’re creating at the Technopreneur Centre are likely to have a long-lasting, positive impact on the world,” says second-year Business Information Technology student and centre member Lerato Tlhako.

4IR is nurturing a generation of technopreneurs eager to change and improve the world. And thank goodness for that. With their enthusiasm for knowledge-sharing, innovation and collaboration, a brighter future might yet be possible.

Find out about how UJ is reimaging our future here: uj.ac.za/4IR

A leader on our continent. UJ. Ranked third in South Africa and Africa. Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings

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