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Meet Sudan’s First Flying Robot Farmer (Photos, Video)

Two Sudanese inventors use a drone to take on desertification and their rivals in a TV competition for entrepreneurs.

Hatem and Mohammed are obsessed with drones and robots.

Determined to stop the desert from swallowing up their country, the two Sudanese inventors decide to take part in a television competition for inventors to raise awareness and investment in their dream – Sudan’s first and only agricultural drone company.

Although isolated by international sanctions and frustrated by a failing economy, the pair succeed in building Sudan’s first flying robot farmer.

Their drone can plant trees, increase harvests and reduce crop damage. And they are bound by their shared belief that Africa can change its destiny with technology.



Two Sudanese pioneers are determined to stop the desert from swallowing up their country  [Lucy Provan/Al Jazeera]

By Lucy Provan:

When I read an article about the Mashrouy TV competition in Sudan where startups compete for funding, I was curious about what life was like for entrepreneurs living under sanctions in a country that had been engaged in civil war for decades.

After obtaining a list of contestants, I embarked on a series of crackly phone calls, discussing the merits of gold purifying machines, digital portable dental units, palm furniture, and something called ‘yoghurt free yoghurt production’.

In our first phone call Mohammed, an inventor, told me he believed robotics would solve the world’s problems. He and his close friend Hatem had taught themselves how to build drones online and had been working with a small team of others for five years.

Desertification is making swaths of Sudan harder and harder to live in. A great green wall of trees is being built across the length of Africa to try and combat this.

Mohammed and Hatem wanted to contribute by planting trees with drones. They wanted to stop the geography and heritage of parts of Sudan from being eroded into obscurity and use their drones to document and prove what was happening.

Living under sanctions – intended to punish the Sudanese government for supporting al-Qaeda and for the genocide in Darfur – meant that getting the right parts into the country was a long, painstaking process for Mohammed and Hatem.

All their time and money was going into this ambitious project, while all across northern Africa the desert was spreading, erasing everything in its wake.

Elfadil Hasab Allah is one of many Shamalia residents who have had to evacuate their homes due to desertification [Lucy Provan/Al Jazeera]

In the UK, where I am from, global issues like climate change and automation can feel distant and removed, but Mohammed and Hatem are living on the front line, and Africa has become a testing ground for the commercial drone industry.

The continent is warming up 1.5 times faster than the global average, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I knew the view from their doorstep on these global issues was a valuable one.

After getting funding and vital support from One World Media, an organisation that supports stories about the developing world, I flew to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Despite a stagnating economy and few job opportunities, Mohammed and Hatem were creating a different future for themselves in their lab.

The internet had added another dimension to their identity, broadening their horizons and offering fresh perspectives on their everyday problems. They were dedicated to preserving their local heritage, yet evangelistic about an international push for automation.

I travelled with Mohammed and Hatem to see the problem they were trying to solve first hand.

We went to Shamalia in the arid Northern State, six hours north of Khartoum. The small farming villages of one-storey houses here had always been protected by large green palm groves, but now these trees were dying or being cut down to fuel industry.

The desert was rolling, unimpeded, into communities. Unprecedented sandstorms created chaos: A teacher told me how the sand had poured in through school windows as she taught. A father told me of how the sand would blanket his children as they slept.

People described the desert as a “devil” that crawled and clawed its way into their homes to drown them. Standing on sand dunes, I was shocked to hear that below my feet were entire villages.

This film is about the forces that are pushing the world’s population ever closer together. Technology means we are more accessible and aware of one another than ever before, while climate change is destroying habitable land and forcing us to live closer together.

The film tells the stories of some of those most affected by these changes. It would not have been possible without the enormous generosity of the people I met in Sudan; Mohammed, Hatem, their colleague Mohammed Abdullah, Robin Davies and the employees of the British Council Sudan, Dimah Gasim, and so many more. I hope this film reflects their experience and attests to their resilience and tenacity.

Tractors can be hired to remove sand from homes, but the expense means many in Shamalia have to try and deal with the sand themselves [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Written by PH

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