Egyptian scientist Dr. Nashwa El Bendary is the winner of the regional L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship. The L’Oreal award is meant to fund and support just five women from the region who are carrying out constructive and innovative research in science. Dr. El Bendary’s award-winning project is destined to positively affect the future of agriculture and food security in Egypt.
Give us a little background about yourself.
I received my PhD from Cairo University in 2008 in Computer Science, and I’m currently an associate professor and head of the Business Information Systems department at the Arab Academy for Science Technology & Maritime Transport. My main domain is wireless sensor networks (WSN). These are responsible for things like lights automatically turning on in a dark room when people enter it. In other words, they are sensors that detect the presence of things and then respond accordingly. But instead of focusing on WSN, I decided that there are more pressing issues that affect people that need to be solved, also using technology. So I began using my computer science background in a development context. I started focusing on two problematic issues we have in Egypt; water availability and quality, and agricultural food security.
What is your award project aiming to achieve?
My project is about finding smart, technological solutions that will allow more people to partake in agriculture. The aim is to improve the monitoring of crops and, in particular, the environmental changes affecting crops. This monitoring will ensure the production of good quality produce by informing the farmer when to harvest. There are different time periods for harvesting depending on whether you want to sell locally, for export, or if you want to store the crop. For example, if you want to export strawberries, they can’t be 100% ripe; because they’ll go bad by the time they reach their importer.
Those wanting to export their produce also have another problem. After harvesting, the produce is either sorted by hand or in centers. If just one product turns bad, then the entire batch will be compromised and sent back. So you need to have sensors to perform pre-harvesting as well as post-harvesting monitoring. These sensors which monitor things like temperature and humidity are the core of my research.
How did you get the idea to apply for the fellowship?
Because of the high-tech nature of the project, I had to look for funding to cover the costs and traveling expenses. As a member of the Scientific Research Group in Egypt, I was aware that UNESCO, in collaboration with other companies, was offering these awards. I looked through their website, and that’s when I applied for the L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship online.
Do you have a deadline for completing this project?
The first part of the project, for which I got the fellowship, is almost done. This is basically a hardware and software demonstrator. The prototype will be complete in a matter of three to four months. As for the post-harvesting sensors, we’re still gathering information. I will use my financial award, that is 10,000 euros, to get more results.
How implementable will this system be here in Egypt?
On the one hand, I have gone around asking farmers what they need to improve their yield, so I know it will make their lives easier. If a farmer installs these sensors, he will have a sustainable alternative to costly traditional means. Even if the farmer can’t afford all of the parts, I can customize something for him that can make him forego parts of it, like the cameras. On the other hand, the local farmer will need justification and a strong incentive to make this change. The problem we face is the culture of resistance to anything new. To prepare myself for this challenge, I started learning about marketing, budgeting, writing proposals, and how to see your ideas through. I am hoping that when the prototype is built we will be able to attract industrial partners.