Strathmore University is the recipient of a Mozilla Common Voice grant. Its project combines data collected from mini-weather stations with a new chatbot to offer smallholder farmers real-time digital climate information in both English and Swahili.
We spoke with Project Lead Betsy Muriithi about her team’s approach to helping smallholder farmers thrive.
The majority of smallholder farmers in Kenya get weather and climate forecasts through traditional radio and television reports, from community leaders, and through indigenous knowledge that has been passed down through generations. While these venues and methods are accessible and affordable, they have some flaws and limitations.
Radio and television reports aren’t geographically precise, leaving farmers vulnerable to region-specific variations in weather and climate patterns. There’s also been a progressive loss of indigenous knowledge in recent years due to insufficient documentation and a poor knowledge transfer system.
Kenya has a diverse ecosystem and various crop value chains, making it an ideal place for the team at Strathmore University to test its AI-driven agricultural project “Imarika,” meaning “to strengthen.” Working in the Nambale and Butula wards in Busia County, Project Lead Betsy Muriithi and her team are field-testing their mini-weather stations and chatbot. The team has deployed 20 mini-weather stations that collect data and stream it to a platform where it is collected and shared with the chatbot. Smallholder farmers can then interact with the chatbot, getting real-time and finely-tuned localized weather information for their areas.
“Users can engage with the chatbot in Swahili, making it accessible to a broader audience, including those with limited digital literacy,” Muriithi says. (Users can also engage with the chatbot in English). The chatbot offers voice-based guidance on a range of other common questions smallholder farmers might have.
Users can engage with the chatbot in Swahili, making it accessible to a broader audience, including those with limited digital literacy.
Betsy Muriithi, Imarika
Imarika is one of eight awardees in Mozilla’s 2023 - 24 Common Voice Kiswahili program, which funds projects leveraging the Kiswahili language and voice technology to increase social and economic opportunities for marginalized groups in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Kiswahili-speaking Democratic Republic of Congo. These grants are supported by the Gates Foundation in collaboration with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the German development agency GIZ, as a response to a gender conscious and community centered approach to tech development.
Mozilla’s funding allowed the Imarika team to secure access to powerful GPUs, which are crucial for training the speech-to-text and text-to-speech models that underpin the chatbot. The team has also been able to access software tools like Botpress and Rapid API, which has helped them manage the chatbot’s dialogue flow and connect to weather forecasting services.
Says Muriithi: “Success looks like a future where smallholder farmers in Africa have the knowledge and tools to adapt to climate change effectively and enhance their agricultural productivity.”
“Professor Muthoni Masinde is an associate professor and the head of the IT department at the Central University of Technology, Free State,” Muriithi says. “Her work focuses on harnessing AI and IoT to develop ICT-based solutions to droughts and climate change. She founded ITIKI (Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence), a drought-prediction tool that taps into the rich African indigenous knowledge on natural disasters and augments it with wireless sensor networks, artificial intelligence, and mobile phones, and inspired much of the work in our area. Her work demonstrates the transformative power of interdisciplinary approaches and the importance of preserving and harnessing indigenous knowledge for the betterment of society.”
“I enjoy Kenyan homonyms. Here are a few from the tribe I’m from and from the one I’m married into:”
Wendo: Means “love” in the Kikuyu/Kamba tradition, and “guest/visitor” in the Luo tradition
Nyambura: A name meaning “born of rain” in the Kikuyu/Kamba tradition, and “kitten” in the Luo tradition