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A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For using AI to transform agriculture—and respond to COVID-19

While visiting Pueblo Viejo in his home country of the Dominican Republic, Eddy Alvarado witnessed firsthand how farmers were losing much of their crops to disease and the devastating toll these losses took on their families and the community. A computer scientist who specializes in data science, Alvarado started looking at artificial intelligence (AI) as a potential solution.

In 2017, he launched Agro360 with a pilot project aimed at using AI to help farmers in poor communities increase the productivity of their crops, reduce the impact of disease and lessen their reliance on chemicals.  

“I decided to take my knowledge in data science and AI to build something that could help those farmers to be resilient and more productive,” Alvarado says.

Alvarado was also driven by a big-picture reality: The problems in Pueblo Viejo weren’t an anomaly. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as much as 40 percent of global food production is lost due to pests and crop disease, which, in turn, instigates chronic hunger and malnutrition. 

“Agro360 made me understand that many times we are developing our society focused on ephemeral things without paying attention to the assurance of fundamentals such as food sustainability, health and comprehensive education,” Alvarado says.

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How Eddy Alvarado Transformed Agriculture in the Dominican Republic

While visiting Pueblo Viejo in his home country of the Dominican Republic, Eddy Alvarado witnessed the devastating toll crops lost to disease took on farmers, their families, and their communities. A computer scientist specializing in data science, Alvarado looked to artificial intelligence (AI) as a potential solution.

To create targeted solutions, the team—which included three other engineers who specialize in agriculture and agronomy—talked with local farmers. Based on that feedback, they built an algorithm that could track environmental factors (like temperature and rainfall), then use that data to predict the appearance of disease. 

A successful pilot helped convince large food companies that purchase the crops to subsidize the technology for farmers. It’s a win-win, Alvarado says: Food producers and retailers get more quality product, and farmers increase their profit margins. As of 2021, farmers using the Agro360 platform and sensors earned a 23 percent boost in yields and slashed the use of agrochemicals by 40 percent, he says.

The positive social impact of Agro360 has reached well beyond the food supply chain, though. Alvarado’s team applied lessons learned from the agtech development project to build another platform, Aurora, created in just 14 days to help the Dominican Republic battle COVID-19. Fueled by AI and natural language processing, Aurora uses public and healthcare data to predict COVID-19 infections and encourage people with symptoms to get medical help. The platform includes an automated WhatsApp chat tool that alerts citizens on where and how to get COVID-related help, and to bring in healthcare providers if Aurora identifies a life-threatening situation. 

The app proved so popular that the government adopted the platform and appointed Alvarado as CTO at the Ministry of Health. From that position, he and his team were able to scale Aurora to capture and analyze inputs from all hospitals in the country. They then used the platform to predict outbreaks of other diseases, including dengue fever, and route those cases directly to emergency services. 

For Alvarado, it was an opportunity to make a difference. “As project managers, it’s very satisfying when we have the possibility of working on projects that have a positive, immediate and measurable impact on people’s lives,” he says.

Alvarado’s team also added features to Aurora that allow physicians to meet with patients virtually and built telehealth cabins in remote communities that lack access to local services. From March through June in 2020, the Aurora platform was available to 550,000 Dominicans and delivered more than 11,000 telemedicine consultations. 

“We just don’t want to remember COVID as a disaster for the economy,” he says. “We wanted to look back and say we did something. We need to keep using our knowledge to develop products that help impact humanity in a positive way.”

Q&A: Eddy Alvarado on resilience, big data and Muhammad Yunus

What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?

Resiliency. The unexpectedness of a global pandemic demonstrated that extreme situations are when we most require this skill.

What’s one way managing projects will change over the next decade?

Planning and execution will be more dynamic and accurate. The ability to use different data points to measure risk and predict failures in real time will determine how projects develop.

What famous person would you want on your project team?

Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and winner of 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. He demonstrated that projects are about people and understanding their realities, and that taking risks wisely can create economic and social development from below.

How did the pandemic change the way you manage projects?

The pandemic made me reaffirm that projects are for and by people, and that time is the most valuable asset we have. The success of a project must include the success of communities—the economic, social and environmental impact must always be present.