Ghanaian teenager develops AI tech to ensure greater food security for communities in Ghana and beyond

HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (L), presents an award to a representative from ‘Okuafo’, the winners of the Zayed Sustainability Prize for Food.

Mustapha Diyaol-Haqq, co-founder of the Okuafo Foundation in Ghana, has been awarded $600,000 by the Zayed Sustainability Prize as the global winner in the food category for the 2020 edition of the prize. In an interview with How we made it in Africa, Mustapha shares his thoughts about the future of the agriculture sector in Ghana and beyond as well as Okuafo’s impact so far after winning the prize.

1. What inspired you to set up Okuafo?

The inspiration to start Okuafo Foundation came about in a bid to find an effective solution to help farmers improve their yields in order to address the problem of hunger and food insecurity, which are major challenges in the developing world, particularly Africa. Smallholder farmers produce up to 80% of the food consumed in Africa and Asia but continue to live in poverty, receiving little returns from their input. Across the globe, there are around 500 million smallholder farmers.

In a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, more than 820 million people regularly go to bed hungry, of whom about 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns (according to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises). It is also estimated that an additional 130 million people are at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020, according to the World Food Programme.

As an agricultural technology solution provider, we are committed to contributing to the UN’s SDG Goal 2 which seeks to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

2. Tell us about your invention, ‘Okuafo AI App’ and how does it differ from other agric technologies currently available?

Okuafo Foundation has been working on sustainable agriculture technologies for farmers. Our solution, the Okuafo AI App, enables rural farmers with no access to internet connectivity to detect pest infestations early enough and then take sustainable steps to contain the damage before it spreads. The app which is farmer-focused uses colours and numbers to convey messages making it very easy to use. This means, farmers will spend little or no money on pesticides and have increased yields. The Okuafo AI app has helped 30,000 farmers reduce their crop losses and improve their harvest by 50 per cent, in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Burkina Faso.

Our community intervention projects are also aimed at helping rural farmers process their harvests using renewable energy powered machines. This helps to reduce their reliance on traditional energy sources such as diesel and kerosene.

3. What risks do you foresee your business facing?

Risk is inevitable and every successful entrepreneur faces a myriad of risk. We are living in a dynamic and fast-paced world where new technologies are constantly emerging. In order to stay competitive, we need to invest heavily in new systems and processes. One major challenge we foresee in our line of business would be how to expand our reach to offer support to more smallholder farmers in the remote locations. Signing up more smallholder farmers onto our AI app means investment in expanding our server infrastructure, cloud computing platforms, trainers, and filed officers.

4. Your innovation won in the food category at the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize. How do you intend using the prize money?

Being the UAE’s pioneering global award in sustainability, the Zayed Sustainability Prize recognises impactful, innovative, and inspirational solutions of SMEs and nonprofits in the fields of food, health, water, energy and global high schools.

We were extremely honoured to emerge as the winner for the 2020 Zayed Sustainability Prize in the food category. The prize fund of $600,000 awarded to us is being put towards expanding our capacity as an organisation in order to accommodate and serve thousands of farmers across Africa, starting with Ghana. The prize will also enable us to build a near real-time map of green house gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural activities and gather useful data that will help governments and policymakers in designing climate change policies to ensure that the major players in GHG emissions are targeted.

We are also investing in community intervention projects to enable smallholder farmers in deprived communities to increase productivity and to ensure families have access to nutritious food all year round.

5. Share your proudest moments as an entrepreneur.

The proudest moment in my life was when my organisation was mentioned as the winner of the 2020 Zayed Sustainability Prize in the food category. I had always wanted a way to make an impact just like I admired tech giants boasting about their solutions changing the world. Winning the prize made this a dream come true for me.

6. What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs like yourself?

In every business endeavour, it is critical to ‘remember why you started’ as this will enable you to stay focused on your goals. Maintaining your goals and objectives and hard work will help you build a successful business and impact lives positively.

To stay relevant in business, you need to be creative and innovative. Stay abreast with current trends and developments in technology. Do not be afraid to be a pioneer of solutions around artificial intelligence and machine learning as this will give you a huge leverage over your competitors.

Applying for prizes and grants takes a lot of patience and I encourage young entrepreneurs to do so as the prize money is truly transformative! The Zayed Sustainability Prize is accepting entries until the 11th of June and I encourage viable SMEs, NPOs, NGOs and other sustainable enterprises to apply.