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Cisco challenge winners use AI, IoT to tackle global problems

Aug 05, 20206 mins
InternetInternet of Things

Top prize goes to a startup in Kenya with a milk-chilling transit system that uses AI to optimize inventory management.

wireless network - internet of things edge [IoT] - edge computing - digital transformation
Credit: Thinkstock

An IoT-enabled system for transporting dairy products earned its designers the top prize in a competition run by Cisco. The Global Problem Solver Challenge, which is one of Cisco’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, pays cash awards to entrepreneurial companies using technology to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Now in its fourth year, Cisco’s Global Problem Solver Challenge awards $100,000 to the first-place winner and $75,000 to the first runner-up. The program also gives out four $25,000 awards and seven $10,000 prizes.

This year, I was honored to be invited to help judge the 2020 winners. In full disclosure, I agreed to be a judge but I received no compensation, as I believe we all have to work together to make the world a better place. One important consideration for me, as I thought about whether to volunteer my time as a judge, was that this is not a marketing ploy by Cisco to sell more technology. There is no requirement for any of the entries to use Cisco products.

This year, 524 teams submitted entries. More than 80 people made up the judging panel, which evaluated the entries and selected winners from among 20 finalists.

Judging was based on four criteria:

  • Innovation and digitization aspect of the solution (33%). Specifically, how are IoT and other digital technologies being used?
  • Potential social impact (33%). How many people can this technology reach, and how broad is the impact?
  • Feasibility (24%). Does the product make financial sense, and is it sustainable over the long term?
  • Clarity (10%). How well did the entrant explain the solution and its impact on society?

Grand prize: IoT-enabled dairy transit system

The winner of the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 is Savanna Circuit Tech from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. The company’s product, the MaziwaPlus Prechiller, is a solar chilling transit system with an inventory management component designed for dairy businesses in Africa.

savanna Savanna Circuit Tech/Cisco

In emerging markets, dairy producers can experience a loss of up to 30% of their harvest from inadequate cooling. Dairy is, of course, a key source of nutrition for families across Africa. It’s also an important source of revenue for many families, as 70% of annual milk production comes from small dairy farmers. The high amount of waste takes a big toll on profits and wages.

The current method of transporting milk is to use non-cooled plastic containers, which can encourage bacteria growth that compromises quality. Another issue is that milk containers are often transported by animals, such as horses or donkeys, because of poor road quality. 

Savanna Circuit’s solution is a non-refrigerant, solar-powered milk chiller that’s portable enough to be placed on any means of transportation ranging from motorcycles to trucks. The cooling cuts down on spoilage and maximizes profits for the dairy producers. The MaziwaPlus Prechiller is anchored on a thermo-electric cooling unit to preserve the milk in transit. IoT sensors monitor the temperature to maintain it at 4 degrees Celsius. This ensures the quality and nutritional value are maintained while prolonging the life of the product. The 3G/4G-connected shielding allows for system data to be logged into a centralized system at each dairy.

The MaziwaPlus Prechiller also uses PH sensors to watch for any imbalances. The readings are sent via Bluetooth and transferred to the main collection system. The probe limits the amount of human touch required, which helps maintain quality while recording data in real-time. There is also an auto-rejection feature that ensures only good quality milk is transported in the chiller. 

Savanna Circuit also built a management application that stores data in the cloud. The system is designed to work offline as Internet connectivity is spotty in remote regions. The offline model enables data to be fed locally and then uploaded to the cloud when it’s reconnected. The app also provides transparency into the state of the milk to all stakeholders via a rich management system that can be accessed by mobile phones.

According to the company, post-harvest milk losses due to inadequate cooling during transport cost Kenya about $120 million annually. In addition, 36% of kids under age five in rural Kenya have stunted growth due to a lack of proper nutrition. Savanna Circuit has changed this narrative. In just 1.5 years, the company has trained 16 operators and expanded into four counties reaching about 3,000 people daily. Savanna Circuit has increased the volume of milk at the cooperatives, putting the producers in a better position to bargain for better prices from the processors.

The company plans to use the $100,000 prize money to install and operate 10 more 3,000-liter capacity chilling systems in seven new regions in Kenya, with a goal of saving 420 million liters annually. More importantly, these 20 units will generate revenue through a lease model, creating a sustainable environment. This means the prize money can help create the money flow needed to potentially expand the solution to 50 million small dairy farmers in Africa.

CURE creates custom, affordable prosthetics with IoT, AI and 3D printing

The first runner-up in Cisco’s challenge is a company called CURE from the Tunis Business School in Tunisia. The start-up uses IoT, AI and 3D printing to create custom prosthetics.

cure CURE/Cisco

Globally, there are one billion people living with disabilities. Thirty million people have limb differences, and only 5% have a properly fitted prosthetic device. Cost is one reason: Prosthetics can often cost $100,000 or more, and children will need an average of 10 prosthetics in their first 21 years.

CURE develops and manufactures bionic arms for people with limb differences at an affordable price. Its arms are 3D printed and have an adjustable socket to accommodate for growth, as well as a rotating wrist for greater flexibility. Its devices also have wireless and solar charging for users in countries with poor electric coverage. The bionic arms use sensors and are controlled with muscle signals, so there is no need for surgical intervention to connect with the body. It can be as simple as wearing a glove.

Each prosthetic is loaded with IoT sensors and uses AI to transmit information to an online dashboard, where doctors can see real-time data and analyze it to treat the patient and make adjustments. There is also a therapeutic solution that uses virtual reality to enable amputees that require training to see a virtual hand and to control it via IoT sensors.

CURE says its prize money will be used to finalize clinical trials, purchase equipment and raw materials, and hire a marketing agency to go to market.

Network World and other sites have written extensively about how digital technologies such as IoT and AI can change the business landscape. As we move into a world where everything is connected, we all need to be thinking about how living in a hyperconnected world can help people who are struggling.


Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, and provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers.

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