The story of 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Awa Thiam is a perfect example of how many areas of expertise contribute to a country’s strong agricultural sector. As a university student,
Thiam studied telecommunications engineering with a specialization in international marketing. It was not until she traveled to Nicaragua on a humanitarian mission that she got the idea for the Lifantou project, the initiative she leads that aims to develop a collaborative web platform over a geographic information system using crowd-sourced geospatial data to link farmers and school cafeterias. In Nicaragua, Thiam learned of the county’s program to provide meals for children at school. The guarantee of a meal at school contributed to Nicaragua’s low level of malnutrition and worked as an incentive for children to attend class. Her experience in Nicaragua inspired the Lifantou project’s goal of revamping public school conditions to secure daily food for children, reinforce food distributions, and boost and diversify the agricultural sector.
In this podcast, Thaim explains how there is room for many different professions in the agriculture sector and discusses her experience as a woman working in not one, but two male-dominated industries — agriculture and engineering. She also touches on her hopes for the Lifantou project’s future and reflects on her membership in the YALI Network.
“I really enjoyed being part of the YALI Network. It’s a big opportunity, and we have to do something from it. We have to build something from it for our communities. We have to work for ourselves and for our communities, and the YALI Network is a great opportunity to make it happen.”
You can listen to Thiam’s story in the YALI Voices podcast or review the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: AWA THIAM
AWA THIAM: My name is Awa Thiam. I’m from Senegal, from Dakar, the capital city.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to YALI Voices wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen to all the podcasts at yali.state.gov, where you can also stay up to date on all things YALI.
2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Awa Thiam is a telecommunication engineer focusing on children’s education and nutrition. Through the project she leads, Lifantou, she hopes to develop a collaborative web platform using crowd-sourced geospatial data to link farmers and school canteens. Her plan is to match farmers with schools, creating a market for agripreneurs and providing food security to underprivileged children. She is convinced that new technologies can serve real needs and have a social impact, securing daily food for children, reinforcing food distribution, and boosting and diversifying the agriculture sector.
Awa begins this YALI Voices Podcast by telling us about her early childhood in Burkina Faso and how it shaped the work she hopes to do. Later she talks about the partnerships that have helped her advance her work and how she hopes to collaborate with others to improve Lifantou, making it more reliable and user-friendly in Africa.
THIAM: I did my first classes in Burkina Faso, actually. My parents were traveling, so I was in the country. I was really young. And then I come back to Senegal. So, at the beginning it was kind of a new country for me, and then I learned to speak Wolof.
I learned to enjoy the country, and I really loved being in Senegal. People are really friendly. I really love it. People are amazing. They are really helpful, really friendly. We have this teranga. Senegal is a country of teranga. Teranga is the fact of sharing, of being all together, sharing, and I love this idea.
I did four years in Burkina Faso. And I think that the fact that I travel really young make me really open-minded about what’s happening in Africa. I really love travel all around Africa to visit, to meet new people. I really enjoy it.
Today for me what it means is, for example, I’m starting a business. I’m already thinking about how can I make it in other countries in Africa. I’ve been to Ghana, to Ivory Coast, to Burkina Faso, so I know that they have the same reality that is in Senegal.
So, already I’m thinking about how my project can be used in those countries.
THIAM: I’m working on a geographic information system so I can map the school feeding program and the farmers — their production, what is available — so I can link them, link the both of agriculture and education sectors.
The idea of the project is to have a map of everything that is produced — the crops, the fruits, the vegetables. And even the fishermen, for example, what they have available. All the food that are available in Senegal. This is one part of the project.
The second part is to have a mapping of the school. Where are the students? Where are the school, where are the school feeding program. So I can be able to take the food from the farmers to the schools. So I’m doing the delivery system from the farmers to the school.
So it will help them, the school feeding program, to have low-cost meals. And it will also help the farmers to have a new market, a market that can be predictable because we know exactly how many children we have to feed. We can go to the farmer and tell them about the market dynamics, and it can also help them to diversity their production because they will know about what is produced all around the country. So it will help both the agriculture and the education sectors.
THIAM: I thought to work alone on this project. Then I met an expert in geographic information system, and he was the one who start to explaining me how I can use it for my business. I continue to find some partnership, and I discovered that the government agency in charge of school canteen in Senegal were really interested about this project because they are trying to link the farmers and the schools, but they are only doing it locally. So, they agreed to work with me for the proof of concept.
I also found a partnership with GESCOD, which is a French NGO. They are also into helping me to do the proof of concept if it’s done in a specific community where they are already working.
And today I’m doing my professional development experience at Radiant Earth, which is a nonprofit American organization, which is providing open data, open Earth imagery, so you can have those data, analyze them on their platform, and use them to bring more solution to social agricultural health issue.
So I’m working now with those organization, but I’m open, I’m looking for expertise. So I’m open if I can have more partnership to build this project.
THIAM: I have a degree in telecommunication engineering, with a specialization in international marketing and strategy. And during my specialization I had to write a professional thesis. And I decided to look on how centralized software could help to improve the food distribution in Senegal.
I also have an experience in humanitarian mission. And during those experiences I’ve been to Nicaragua. And in Nicaragua I saw that even if the country is poor, they have all the children going to school, because the government have this plan for school feeding program where every children have a meal at school.
So even if a parent doesn’t have enough money to take care of their children, they will send them to school because they know that their children will have a meal at school.
So thanks to that program, they don’t have any malnutrition issue in that country. And also the children are educated. So when I saw that, I was like, OK, we need that in our countries. We need to find a way to develop that. And I know that with new technology there is a lot of solution available that are being used for agriculture, for education, for health, for a lot of area.
So I was thinking how my background in engineering could help to bring this solution in Senegal. So I start to work on this professional thesis with the government agency in charge of IT development in Senegal and also with my mentor during the university.
And I work on the technical opportunities, the marketing plan, and what strategy I can use to develop the project.
By now, with Radiant Earth, I succeed in having the maps of the schools in Senegal. So we already have that. So that’s amazing. We have all the schools in the country. And also I did some research, and I found the food production, but in big area, not individual food production.
So the next step is to continue to build those data, to be sure that we’ll have all the information that we need and to start doing a test in one school, five school, 10 school, and this solution is really scalable. Like, once we have the process, once we figure out how to … manage the distribution, we can use it all around the country, and even in other countries.
I did a lot of research about this project. I start with the professional thesis. Then I take one year to make a prototype, to find some partnership, to find people who will be interesting about the idea. So usually people really like the idea, really like the project. They know that I can make it, I have the skills needed to do IT project management, to work in social environment. But they don’t want to invest in something that is just an idea for now. So they usually saying, “Oh, do the proof of concept and then we’ll help you and then we’ll come and join your project.” But the proof of concept need experts in web development. Need also, for example, a truck for the food distribution. Need time. I have to take time to work with the farmers directly, to work with the schools directly. And for that we need a budget, we need some investment, and we need also support. So it’s really difficult to find people who believe in your project and who will work with you since the beginning. So for two years now, I’m working by myself. I have my actual work with a telecommunication company in Senegal. And I use my incomes to invest in my project because I believe in it. But it mean like I have two jobs, I have — I don’t have my own incomes because I invest it every time. That’s not always easy, but we we believe in it and I think that it can really happen.
THIAM: For the next years I would love to set the company, to be sure that it will be something that will run through the proof of concept to succeed, and to have at least 10 school by the school year of 2020, using this solution.
This is my short-term goal I want it to be. And my long-term goal is to be sure that every children will wake up and know that they have to go to school, they have to learn something in school. And they have their meal secure when they will go to school. I want every parent and every children to know that, to be sure of it.
And I want the Lifantou program to be used in all the schools in Senegal and all the farmers to be able to feed their children so it will create a new economic model, so the farmers will have income while they will deliver the food to the school, and the school will have best condition and ready-to-learn condition for all the children.
VOICE OVER: As Awa’s story can attest, there are many areas of expertise and study that can contribute to food security and a country’s strong agricultural sector. We asked Awa to speak on why it is important for African youth to think beyond many outdated and incorrect perceptions of being a farmer or rancher, and why they should be bringing their knowledge of new technologies and their professional experiences to the business of agriculture.
THIAM: I think we have this bad idea about agriculture because of the way we see it. For example, when I go to my parents’ village, I saw that they produce a lot of — they have a lot of product and they are able to sell it, but they don’t have enough income from their work. They work hard, and they don’t have enough income to live in the condition that they should have with all their efforts.
And for example, when I’ve been to Iowa for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I visit some companies, some farmers, and they — their activity is a real business. They live thanks to their activity. They can raise their children in good conditions, they can build their houses, beautiful houses, thanks to the agriculture. They can sell their product all around the country, all around the world. They can save their product, and they have new machines, good, developed machines to help them to work.
So even if it’s not an easy job, once you love it, you can, you can make your life through it. So I think that we have to, to change the mindset to think that how, how great agriculture is, how noble this work is. You work from the nature and you feed people, you feed people. This is really important.
This is like the best job ever. So we need to find how to make it easier for people and how to make people to live from their job, to have income with it, to raise their children, to be decent, to have their farm and to be proud of having their farms. There is this idea about my parent — this farm was for my parents, for my grandparents.
So, usually, when someone is still working in his farm, it’s because they love it and it’s a culture for them, they have this relationship with their soil. And today we have to work so not only they will love their job, but they will figure out how to live out of it.
According to the data that we have, in 2050 one young people out of three will be in Africa. The population in Africa is growing really fast, and we need to feed that population. Today we are taking food from the outside, from China, from the U.S., from every country. And we are able to produce what we are eating.
And we should be even exporting our production because the lands in Africa are really … the soils are, have really great capacity for food productions. But we are not doing it today, and we have to do it.
But as I was saying, agriculture is a business. So everyone has to work on it. If, for example, you’re a lawyer, you should help this farmer to have great partnership with biggest companies so he’ll be able to sell his product and get something from it. If you are a financial expert, you have to help this farmer so he will calculate how much he can invest on his farm and how much he can get from it. If you are a scientific, we have remote sensing data, remote sensing information that will help the farmer to have more information about his soil capacity, about the weather, about how he can improve his production, how he can have more volume and better quality, for example.
And in a lot of, lot of technology. We have the machine learning. We have, for example, when you think about the John Deere machine, it’s mechanic. It’s mechanical, but it’s also informatic, it’s also a lot of work. So all the domain can come and work in agricultural sector. And we’ll need it. We’ll need it. We have to make money from it, and we have to make food from it.
We have to feed our population. If not, we are going just to continue to buy, to buy, to buy, to buy, and that will not end well. I don’t think that will end well.
Today I’m working in technical field and in agriculture field. And in both those area, there is more men than women. And sometimes you just can’t fight every time. You’re like, “Oh, OK, I just forget about it,” or “I just do my job and then I forget about it.”
In Senegal, for example, we have this history about women who fight for their community. We have it all around Africa, and we have like Ndaté Yalla Mbodj, who was a really great fighter in Senegal. We have Amanirenas, who were here who fight who was a warrior and a queen in her country.
So, when today people are saying, “Oh, you are a woman, you are not supposed to do this job,” or “You are a woman, you just have to be a wife; you don’t have to, you are too hard, because you are doing business and it’s really hard… You are so, you have too much ambition. It’s not good for a woman or anything.”
We have to think about those women who are here and who fight and who succeed in what they were doing. And we have to know that we are able to do it.
VOICE OVER: Awa’s final thoughts are on the YALI Network and her hopes for collaboration amongst Africa’s young leaders.
AWA: I really enjoyed being part of the YALI network. It’s a big family, and we have to support each other, and the mindset is really great in the group because we are doing it. It’s a big opportunity, and we have to do something from it. We have to build something from it for our communities. We have to work for ourselves and for our communities, and the YALI Network is a great opportunity to make it happen.
VOICE OVER: We couldn’t agree with you more, Awa!
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The YALI Voices Podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.