Tanzanian innovator among two winners globally of an agricultural research grant

Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology lecturer Neema Mduma. PHOTO | COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • Ms Neema Mduma was selected from a pool of 700 applicants worldwide, while the other winner is from Ghana.

Dar es Salaam. A computer scientist, Ms Neema Mduma, who is also a lecturer at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology in Arusha (NM-AIST), is set to put an end to pests and crop diseases through the use of smartphones.

This follows a recent announcement that unveiled Ms Mduma as one of the two winners of the Agricultural Research Grant from Grow Further, securing $63,000 alongside other technical support.

She was selected from a pool of 700 applicants across the world, whereas the other winner is from Ghana.

This grant will facilitate the implementation of her idea of teaching the use of smartphones to predict crop diseases for early intervention.

Speaking to The Citizen, Ms Mduma explained that the idea behind smartphone use came when she was practicing machine learning in the education and health sectors.

“After I noticed the positive results in the two sectors, I decided to focus on agriculture, where challenges such as disease diagnosis and pest detection can be solved using machine learning tools,” she explained.

According to Ms Mduma, the research grant will support the development of machine learning tools that will help smallholder farmers in northern Tanzania and beyond easily detect pests and crop diseases for prompt intervention before causing significant economic loss.

“I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement when I was informed about being selected. I feel grateful and honoured that this project is among the two projects that were selected for funding, and this gives me a deep sense of responsibility and obligation to produce meaningful results that will benefit smallholder farmers and other stakeholders in agriculture and food systems,” she revealed.

She applied for the grant in January of this year.

A month later, she was informed that her proposal went through the first screening, and in June, Ms Mduma’s team was shortlisted for presentation to the funders.

In August 2023, Chief Executive Officer of Grow Further, Peter Kelly, came to Tanzania to visit NM-AIST, the project team, and to talk to the farmers.

“This project will also build the capacity of smallholder farmers, agricultural extension officers, and other stakeholders in agriculture and food systems by providing them with assistive technology that will accurately detect pests and crop diseases as early as possible and suggest measures to be taken to prevent significant economic loss,” Ms Mduma detailed.

She was recognised in this year’s edition of the Rising Woman Initiative by The Citizen, where she unveiled her career journey as well as the inspiration behind Baki Shule (which translates to stay in school). “I created a machine learning model called Baki Shule during my PhD studies to address the problem of fewer girls in Tanzania pursuing STEM studies.

This model aimed at preventing students from dropping out of school. Through this, I have been able to organise events and free talks in secondary schools to promote STEM careers and encourage girls to study science from an early stage,” she said.

Baki Shule uses data on school attendance, distance, gender, and other factors to predict the dropout status of a student.

Ms Mduma detailed that it is a tool that can serve as an early warning sign and, therefore, teachers and parents can intervene early to save the situation.