African farmers can now receive free text alerts to help them prepare for locust swarms up to three months in advance, with the rollout of a new AI-powered tool called Kuzi.
Without preventive measures, a swarm of 80 million locusts can consume food equivalent to that eaten by 35,000 people a day, wiping out supplies for vulnerable communities.
"There has to be a better way to do this, one that has the local communities being central in the fight against locusts,” said John Oroko, chief executive of Kuzi’s parent company, Selina Wamucii.
He added that putting in place early detection and control measures will offer farmers "a vital tool in the fight".
Locust outbreaks, the most invasive in the world, devastated 23 countries across East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in 2020, with Kenya suffering its worst locust swarms in 70 years, according to the World Bank.
Kuzi, the Swahili name for the wattled starling, a locust-eating bird, is a tool that generates a real-time heat map of locusts across Africa, showing all potential migration routes and giving a real-time locust breeding index.
Kuzi predicts the breeding and migration routes of desert locusts across countries spanning the Horn of Africa and East Africa by using satellite data, soil sensor data, ground meteorological observation and machine learning.
It then uses deep learning to identify the formation of locust swarms and sends farmers free SMS alerts up to three months in advance of when locusts are highly likely to attack farms and livestock in their areas.
Farmers can sign up for the service on Kuzi's website by providing their name, mobile number and the GPS location of their farm.
The app is currently self-funded, with the "intention to keep the SMS alert services as a free feature for individual farmers", Mr Oroko said.
But over time, the plan is to gradually introduce payment plans for cooperatives and organisations where, in addition to monitoring the pests, they could also pay to license the software to build digital products based on Kuzi's data, such as insurance services.
“The first international anti-locust conference was held in Rome in 1931 and yet Africa continues to experience locust invasions almost 100 years later," Mr Oroko said.
A new wave of the bug "now threatens millions across Eastern and Southern Africa, exacerbating food insecurity for already vulnerable communities, amid the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We have a responsibility to develop and deploy locally bred solutions that address these challenges faced by our vulnerable rural communities,” Mr Oroko added.
The free tool is currently available to users in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda in local languages and there are plans to rollout Kuzi across the rest of the continent.
Selina Wamucii, the company that developed Kuzi, is a global innovator participant at Dubai Expo 2020. The Kenyan company is an online marketplace to connect buyers around the world to African food, fish and agricultural produce.