Student Profile: Stephen Odara - From Food Science in Uganda to Smart Farms in India-Carnegie Mellon University Africa - Carnegie Mellon University

Stephen Odara: From Food Science in Uganda to Smart Farms in India

“I love researching, I love finding answers to hard questions”

Stephen Odara is a true East African, hailing from Uganda’s eastern border with Kenya and now undertaking studies with Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda (CMU-R). In July, he traveled outside of Africa for the first time to present a paper at a conference in Chennai, India.

Stephen's path to CMU-R was atypical, having completed his Bachelor’s degree in Food Science at Makerere University in Kampala in 2011. After his degree, he remained at Makerere, working as a research assistant in the school of food technology, nutrition and engineering. He worked primarily on two projects: Production of gluten free confectionary products from local produce and food products for emergency situations.

“In emergencies, displaced people have neither have food nor means to cook, generally they are given high-energy biscuits, we looked into making such biscuits from local crops.”

“I became interested in programming from a project I was doing in that job which got me deep into Excel. And I thought, ‘how can I automate the whole thing?’.  This took me into Java, Python and VB.”

Having lit the spark of programming through his efforts to learn how to automate his work, Stephen made a decision to study for his Masters in IT,  in order to gain a deeper insight to his new passion. When he mentioned his intention to a friend who was more well versed in IT graduate program options, he was immediately sent information on the Carnegie Mellon programs in Rwanda. During his second year of studies, he began to work with Professor Taha Selim Ustun on smart grid technologies.

Smart Farms and Smart Grids

His paper “Integration of Smart Grid in Smart Farms” was presented at the International Conference on Technological Innovations in ICT for Agricultural and Rural Development (TIAR 2015) held in Chennai in southern India from 10-12 July 2015. The paper was co-supervised by Professor Taha Selim Ustun and Professor Zain Khan of CMU-R and proposes a platform to leverage smart grids and smart farms.

There are two main thrusts to the work:

  1. Electricity has dynamic pricing which could negatively impact the farmer and so integration would allow the farmer to buy electricity when it is cheaper. 
  2. Every farm has agricultural residue, which could be used to generate renewable electricity, implemented via cooperatives to pool residue where individual farm size is small.

The paper touches on two key trends, a movement towards dynamic energy market, where consumers buy what they need by the second. On the other side is the emergence of smart farms. Taking fertilizer usage as an example, prior to smart farms, a farmer might take an average for the whole field, now he can target the areas needed more or less fertilizer.

“The technique is already well established in Europe and Australia. It has not yet taken off in Africa as we still have a lot of unexploited land and our farming is mostly subsistence, rather than commercial farming which emphasizes yield.”

“This paper is very good, at the beginning I struggled with the concept as I had never considered why rural areas are underdeveloped. When I presented in Chennai I really fell in love with it. Rural areas are hard to finance. It is about economics of scale, one doctor in the village serves less people than in a town, so the cost of production is high. The question is how can we use to ICT to change that i.e. to get jobs, access to medical care and access to services in general ”

Agriculture, IT and Connectivity: Lessons from India

Stephen found that in India, IT platforms connect rural farmers to extension services: “They are using outreach to give farmers outreach in a proper way i.e. a university can help with problems submitted by farmers. In India, 95% of problems reported were able to get a resolution.”

This led Odara to think about a proposal to implement a similar platform for Rwanda or Uganda to connect universities and farmers as a follow on to the paper he presented in Chennai. The model he is considering connects agricultural extension workers to farmers using either 2G phones or smartphones.

Agricultural extension workers are usually employed by government or NGOs in the place of using direct monetary subsidies for farmers. Using the model, farmers get support and the problems proposed by farmers create a pipeline of research ideas that originate from real problems in the field with extension workers acting as intermediaries.

Taking Time to Sample Life in India

The conference trip afforded Stephen his first opportunity to travel outside East Africa and India he found India is quite a change.

“India is endless. I went to Marina Beach, no one told me it was 13km long, I tried to walk I couldn’t finish it. There was a lot of noise compared to Africa, not only physical, voice but also visual noise….endless billboard advertisements on the street. But I imagine if I lived there I would eventually conctrate on the research and tune out the noise. But I think I also like the system, everything shuts down at 10pm and so the city is somehow controlled."

“Another major difference is I had food standing on the street in India! You don’t find that in Rwanda, in Uganda it happens a little, but in India they do it very much. The food was a challenge for me. They had a lot of sweet foods, too sweet for me! And the spices, some were killer....but they have some interesting chapatis!"[Chapatis are an Indian flatbread, popular in East Africa]

“I loved life in India. I had a nice time, Indians were friendly people, I felt at home. Very, very kind and very, very welcoming. It was interesting the girls sit one side and the boys sit the other. I couldn’t believe that!”

Stephen will graduate with an MS in IT in 2016 and continues to work on Smart Farms alongside his other coursework. His studies at CMU-R have been made possible by a 50% fellowship from the Government of Rwanda and by the generous gift of Larry Jennings, Life Trustee at Carnegie Mellon University. Jennings’ donation was used to establish the Innovators Forward Fellowship Fund, which has enabled Stephen and other students from East Africa to complete their studies at CMU-R.

Related Links:

CMU Launches Fund to Accelerate Engineering Education in Africa

Give Today to the Innovators Forward Fellowship Fund