Fatoumata THIAM (Senegal), talks about her groundbreaking research on Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence in agriculture, with broader implications for Africa’s ambitions to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)
Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. I grew up between the city and my home village, Diofior, about 150 kilometers away.
What inspired you into science, and the specific discipline?
I interacted with science from a very early age because my father is a computer scientist. When I was young, he would take me to his office where he allowed me to mess around – draw, write, print and play – on the computers. He also had access to the latest technology gadgets, which were at my disposal, as long as I wasn’t destroying them, of course! As a result, I choose to study computer science at university.
My mathematics teacher in secondary school influenced my interest in mathematics and sciences because he taught us with patience and passion.
How did your early path in science progress?
I obtained a BSc in computer engineering in 2013 at Université de Thiés, Senegal. I then proceeded to the University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal, for an MSc in Distributed Information Systems, which I obtained in 2015. I worked on a distributed architecture of Voice over IP (VoIP), which are networks that do not rely heavily on centralised server nodes to facilitate communication. For my MSc thesis, I worked on real-time storage techniques for Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN).
I consider my greatest achievement to be a two-year tenure as an engineer of telecommunications networks and services in the Department of Information Services, at Thies University, Senegal. Our mission was to set up a distributed authentication system for the University. It was a very challenging project that we managed brilliantly.
What is the focus of your PhD research?
In 2018, I commenced PhD studies, through the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), registered at the University Gaston Berger, Senegal. My research focus is on the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as applied to agriculture and farming.
I am assessing energy efficiency within irrigation networks, and clean energy within solar-powered systems. The aim is to develop an automated irrigation system that will compute the right amount of water for overall crop growth, ensuring that only the required amounts of water are supplied to the plants. The goal is to propose a solution that will optimise and automate the irrigation paradigm in The Niayes.
A geographical area in northwestern Senegal, The Niayes has an exceptionally favourable climate for farming, and represents a natural base of agricultural production in Senegal. However, the region is confronted with difficulties related to increasing salt intrusion, destruction of the strip of casuarina trees, caused by speculation and irregular sale of land. So far, I have been able to establish a mathematical model of reliability and accessibility based on energy efficiency. I also have an IoT testbed, and several projects are being built from it for novel publications, in the context of our research focus.
How does your research contribute to the sustainable development goals?
My research has a cross cutting impact on several SDGs. The need to regulate and optimise water resources, as well as the move to more sustainable farming systems is a shared concern in many developing countries, and across the globe. This research will contribute much needed knowledge towards this goal.
What are the broader implications of your research?
The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of IoT beyond the traditional focus of industrial applications. More human-centric applications of IoT have emerged, for example in making visible the web of human connections as a critical part of the track and trace strategy to monitor and contain the spread of the pandemic. Although our research focuses on agriculture, we are also assessing IoT in a more generic format, with extensive potential for broad transfer of the applications that we will develop.
Overall, this study provides strong evidence of the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa, and the need for the continent to invest strongly in the necessary infrastructure, capacity and policies.
Interview published in partnership with United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA): International Women’s Day 2021: Future Women Leaders – Young African women scientists reflect on their research journey.
It also appeared in the April 2021 edition of Africa Renewal: Using Artificial Intelligence to transform agriculture in Africa.