Rockefeller Foundation Invests in Africa’s Satellite Data and AI for Economic Development

Image: 2021 early release from collaboration examining AI analysis of human settlement activity in Nairobi. Source: The Rockefeller Foundation

The Rockefeller Foundation has launched a USD 5.5 million collaboration with e-GUIDE (Electricity Growth and Use In Developing Economies Initiative) and public benefit technology startup Atlas AI to promote climate resilient infrastructure investment and stimulate economic development across sub-Saharan Africa. 

The three-year project will offer insight into community well-being by leveraging satellite data and machine learning technologies. Furthermore, the digital platform will capitalize on new research and data sets and cover the agriculture, energy, and transportation sectors. The programme will begin by focusing on Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda to assist policymakers in deciding on new infrastructure development. 

Speaking on the collaboration, Zia Khan, Senior Vice President of Innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation, noted that “while data science has been used to improve individual development projects, we haven’t yet unlocked its potential to improve development at a systems level — which is critical because efforts to drive change in energy, agriculture, and transportation must be integrated in order to make opportunity universal and sustainable,” said. He continued, “we are excited about the potential of this collaboration to give policymakers, investors, and operators more dynamic situational awareness of local conditions and help them improve those conditions for the people they serve.”

Jay Taneja, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMass Amherst and principal investigator on the project, also added that “we want to develop tools to measure how infrastructural developments such as roads, electricity systems, and agriculture lead to economic development. We want to understand which combinations result in the most extensive and fastest economic development, primarily in countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

“For more than a decade, the scientific community has been demonstrating the use of data from new sensors like satellites along with AI technologies to measure specific development indicators such as the performance of staple crops, the wealth accumulation of households, and the pace of electrification,” said Abe Tarapani, CEO of Atlas AI. “Real-world investment decisions don’t fit as neatly into one of those buckets. We are thrilled to be part of this pioneering consortium to unlock a more dynamic and practical understanding of how constrained resources can best promote livelihood improvements in local communities.”

“We’re starting in Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya,” continued Professor Taneja, “because these four countries represent places where we already have strong relationships and are already collaborating on projects. We look forward to expanding the initiative’s coverage to more countries in the coming years.”

e-GUIDE predicts electricity consumption in Africa and measures the productive use of energy in the agriculture sector with the help of AI. As a result, Atlas AI will join the initiative, using planetary sensor data and deep learning technologies to monitor global economic and societal well-being. 

Atlas AI and e-Guide have also partnered with the Kigali Collaborative Research Centre in Rwanda. This partnership can consequently help the parties leverage their research and innovation leadership in energy systems, data science, AI, transportation, and climate change.


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