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Maghreb farmers embrace drones to fight climate change

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Imen Hibri, the founder of RoboCare, prepares to fly a drone over an agricultural area to scan the trees from the air
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A drone buzzed back and forth above rows of verdant orange trees planted near Nabeul, eastern Tunisia.

The black unmanned aircraft, equipped with a multi-lens camera and sensors, has been enlisted by Tunisian farmers to help adapt to years of drought and erratic weather patterns caused by climate change.

“The seasons are not like they were before where we knew exactly what to do,” said farmer Yassine Gargouri, noting temperatures now can begin to climb as early as May while in August there have been unusual summer rains.

He hired start-up RoboCare to scan the trees from the air and assess their hydration levels, soil quality and overall health — to prevent irreversible damage.

The technology “provides us with information on how much water each plant needs, no more, no less”, he said.

The use of modern technologies in agriculture is globally on the rise, including in North Africa where countries rank among the world’s 33 most water-stressed, according to the World Resources Institute.

RoboCare, employing about 10 people, is the only company in Tunisia, according to its 35-year-old founder Imen Hbiri, to use drones to help farmers combat the impacts of climate change and reduce costs, crop losses and water consumption.

“Resorting to modern technologies in the sector of agriculture has become inevitable,” Hbiri told AFP while monitoring the drone’s path on her computer screen.

-‘Challenge of tomorrow’-

The daughter of farmers, the entrepreneur knows well the limits of existing farming methods.

Now, in just a few clicks, she can access scans that detect signs of illness or malnourishment before they are visible to the naked eye.

On the screen, fields appear in RGB (red, green, blue) imagery — the greener the plants, the healthier.

Farmers can then use medicine-filled sprinklers mounted to the drones to target the sickly plants with more precision and consequently less expense.

“By relying on this technology, we can save water consumption by up to 30 percent and reduce about 20 percent of the cost of fertilisers and medicine, while raising crop production by 30 percent”, Hbiri explained.

Gargouri, who spends about 80 percent of his budget on fertilisers and other remedies, says this technology is the future.

“We must adapt to these upheavals,” Gargouri added. “It’s the challenge of tomorrow”.

Tunisia is currently experiencing its eighth year of drought (four of which were consecutive) in recent years, according to its agriculture ministry.

The country’s dams, which are the primary source for drinking water and irrigating crops, are currently only filled to about 22 percent capacity.

And about 20 dams — mostly located in the south — have gone completely out of service.

In neighbouring countries, water scarcity is also a major issue.

– Licensing hurdles –

Morocco — where agriculture accounts for 13 percent of the gross domestic product, 14 percent of exports and 33 percent of jobs — also suffered its worst drought in four decades in 2022.

Only about three percent of nearly two million Moroccan farmers use new technologies in their fields, Loubna El Mansouri, director of the digital centre at Morocco’s agriculture ministry, told AFP.

A study they conducted found that using drones to water crops could use “less than 20 litres of water to irrigate one hectare compared to nearly 300 litres” used with traditional methods, Mansouri added.

Similarly, Algeria’s agriculture ministry said it was using drones and satellite imagery for mapping “to optimise the use of agricultural land by evaluating its characteristics and suitability for production”, local media reported.

For the use of these technologies to become widespread, however, Hbiri says the law needs to be changed in Tunisia and awareness raised.

Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia ban the use of unmanned drones without a permit, which in the case of commercial uses can take months to be issued.

Hbiri hopes authorities will help start-ups reach more farmers as she estimates “only 10 percent of farmers in Tunisia depend on this type of technology”.

“We want to focus our work on the use of technology and not spend time and effort on administrative issues and moving between departments and banks, which is slowing our progress,” she said.

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WTO ministers struggle to forge fish, farm, digital deals

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The WTO meeting in the capital of the United Arab Emirates had opened on Monday with major disagreements between the body's 164 member states on key issues
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World trade ministers were locked in disagreement on fisheries subsidies, agriculture and digital customs duties as a major WTO conference entered its last scheduled day on Thursday.

With no signs of a breakthrough at the World Trade Organization’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13) in Abu Dhabi, officials pushed back to midnight its formal closing session, initially scheduled for 8:00 pm (1600 GMT).

The meeting in the capital of the United Arab Emirates opened on Monday with disagreements between the body’s 164 member states on key issues that dominated the agenda of the talks.

They include fisheries subsidies, agriculture and a moratorium on customs duties for digital transactions.

“Everybody is working with a very positive outlook… to try to see what’s the maximum we can get done,” Indian trade minister Piyush Goyal told journalists.

“I am very confident… we will come out with significant outcomes, particularly when it refers to areas of very deep concern to large numbers” of developing countries, he added.

– Fisheries deal ‘difficult’ –

Delegates sought trade-offs as part of a potential package deal that could allow for greater agreement, as was the case during the 2022 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

A new deal on fisheries was initially viewed as the most likely outcome of the MC13 talks.

But Goyal on Thursday said: “It is very difficult to get a resolution.”

After a 2022 deal which banned subsidies contributing to illegal, undeclared and unregulated fishing, the WTO hopes to conclude a second package focusing on subsidies which result in overcapacity and overfishing.

A draft text that was meant to be circulated on Wednesday is still facing delays, said a source close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The overall negotiations “are a bit like a rollercoaster,” the source said.

– E-commerce regulations –

Another sticking point is over the extension of an e-commerce moratorium, which EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis on Thursday called “vital” to economic growth.

Since 1998, WTO members have agreed not to impose customs duties on electronic transactions.

The moratorium has been extended at most ministerial meetings since then, but objections by India and South Africa are now throwing it into jeopardy.

When asked if India would compromise on an extension, Goyal said: “Let’s see what the others are budging on.”

He warned, however, that an extension can’t be “taken for granted.”

On food security, Goyal said he was “confident” progress could be made on permanent rules governing public stockholding of food reserves — a key demand of India.

A “solution can be achieved,” Goyal said.

Big questions remain over how the outcome will address the issue of dispute settlement reform — a main point of contention between the United States and India.

Washington, under former President Donald Trump, brought the dispute settlement system to a grinding halt in 2019 by blocking the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s appeals court, its highest dispute settlement authority.

During the last WTO ministerial in 2022, member states reached a commitment to having a fully and well-functioning dispute settlement system in place by 2024.

“What we’re going to see, I think, is a quite succinct (MC13) declaration which is… not going to sort out the substance,” said a Western diplomatic source who asked not to be named.

“It will recognize the progress we have made and that there is more work to be done, and that we have committed ourselves to get… the system up and running in the course of this year.”

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Universal-TikTok feud ramps up as more songs come down

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Taylor Swift is among the Universal Music Group artists whose music has been removed from TikTok
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Universal Music Group has lambasted TikTok’s approach to AI as the feud between the two companies over song royalties escalates and popular music is expunged from the social media platform.

Earlier this month music including by Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and The Beatles left TikTok, after a breakdown in negotiations with Universal over renewing their licensing agreement, which expired January 31.

Then this week TikTok began stripping music from all artists connected to Universal’s vast publishing catalog, per the multinational music company’s requirement, with all songs written by Universal Music Publishing Group’s songwriters subject to removal.

That affects any artist who may have a publishing deal with the label — examples include Harry Styles and SZA — even if they aren’t signed under the UMG recording umbrella.

“We are in the process of carrying out Universal Music Group’s requirement to remove all songs that have been written (or co-written) by a songwriter signed to Universal Music Publishing Group, based on information they have provided,” said TikTok in a statement.

Universal fired back late Thursday in an open statement to its songwriters, saying TikTok has “not agreed to recognize the fair value of your songs.”

Along with royalties, Universal said TikTok is “refusing to respond to our concerns about AI depriving songwriters from fair compensation, or provide assurances that they will not train their AI models on your songs.”

“Every indication is that they simply do not value your music.”

Universal’s publishing arm is the second largest of its kind worldwide, meaning the feud’s impact is far-reaching.

A piece of music has two copyrights: one for the recording itself, governed by a label, and another for lyrics and composition, managed by a publisher.

That means when it comes to the Universal-TikTok battle, a record from another company like Sony or Warner could come down if a Universal writer worked on the song.

The fallout from the stalemate has triggered concern among songwriters, producers and others in the industry who rely on TikTok as a promotional tool, especially for emerging artists who increasingly count on it for exposure in the industry.

“We understand the disruption is difficult for some of you and your careers, and we are sensitive to how this may affect you around the world,” Universal continued in its statement. “We recognize that this might be uncomfortable at the moment.”

“But it is critical for the sustained future value, safety and health of the entire music ecosystem, including all music fans.”

Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms globally, with more than one billion users.

TikTok previously had accused Universal of putting “greed” above artists’ interests, while Universal has said TikTok is “trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”

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Riding high on AI, Nvidia is no bubble, says Wall Street

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Jensen Huang, cofounder and CEO of Nvidia, waves as he arrives for a media roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, 2023
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The emergence of AI bots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard has fueled a massive rise in share prices of chip-making juggernaut Nvidia, with its skyrocketing stock now making it the world’s fourth biggest company by market capitalization.

And for Wall Street, it’s no bubble.

Between the launch of ChatGPT on November 30, 2022, for example, and the market close on February 23, Nvidia’s share price increased fivefold, lifted to investor heaven by an insatiable hunger for so-called generative artificial intelligence.

That day Nvidia also crossed the symbolic valuation of $2 trillion, a threshold only reached by Microsoft, Apple and oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The journey has been nothing but mind boggling for a company that doesn’t even rank among the world’s top 150 firms in terms of sales, and barely in the top 1,000 in terms of employees.

On paper, this hot streak is reminiscent of the dot-com bubble, which saw the share price of fiber networking giant Cisco rise eightfold in 18 months, to the point of becoming, for a few minutes, the world’s most valuable company in terms of market capitalization in March 2000, before the tech bubble burst.

“In AI, there might be some names out there that might be getting a bit ahead of their skis from a valuation perspective, and those stories are going to work themselves out over time,” CFRA analyst Angelo Zino told AFP.

“But on the Nvidia side of things, it’s more fundamentally driven,” he said, without the “type of hype you had previously.”

Unlike the frothy days before the bubble popped in 2000, Nvidia’s actual annual net income (up an eye-popping 581 percent year-on-year) is on par with the stock price, said Larry Tentarelli of Blue Chip Daily Trend Report, a research firm.

For analysts at Wedbush Securities, the relevant parallel is not with 2000 and the end of the dot-com bubble, but rather with 1995, when the dot-com boom began.

– ‘Years ahead’ –

Despite appearances, Nvidia’s success is not out of the blue, but rather years in the making.

At the root of this 30-year-old company’s success are graphics processors or graphics cards, known as GPUs (graphics processing units) — chips with far greater computing capacity than conventional microprocessors (CPUs).

Initially developed to improve the graphics quality of video games, the company run by Jensen Huang figured out the technology was perfectly suited for developing the large language models (LLMs) that underpin generative AI interfaces such as ChatGPT.

Despite initial skepticism from Wall Street, Nvidia went down that road, years before programs like ChatGPT exploded onto the scene.

Now Nvidia’s rivals have set off in pursuit, and several of them, notably AMD and Intel, are already marketing their own AI-oriented GPUs, while Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have also developed chips with AI in mind.

But Nvidia “is years ahead” of its competitors, explained Tentarelli.

“The only real risk for Nvidia is if for some reason they run into some unexpected delay… if they can’t produce enough of these GPUs,” he said.

Unlike its rivals Intel, Micron and Texas Instruments, Nvidia, like AMD, does not manufacture its own semiconductors, but uses subcontractors, mainly the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Given the geopolitical concerns with Taiwan and China, this could be a potential weak spot, but Tentarelli attributes only a very low probability to a crisis.

– Beat Apple? –

For the time being, Zino argues, Nvidia’s business model, with no production site, is more of a strength than a weakness, as it enables it to generate higher margins and adjust its volumes more easily to demand.

When they scan the horizon, investors see no sign of a slowdown in demand for AI equipment.

For Wedbush securities, “the AI Revolution starts with Nvidia and in our view the AI party… is just getting started.”

Analysts are expecting, on average, earnings to almost double again this year compared with 2023.

“Nvidia could definitely pass Apple in 20 or 24 months and maybe sooner if it stays at the growth rate that the industry is expecting,” Tantarelli said.

As for Microsoft, the other member of the $2 trillion market cap club?

That’s a taller order, as Microsoft “is also doing a very good job” in AI, Tantarelli said.

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