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Connecting Armenia’s Regions with Technology to Ensure Greater Opportunities for Young People

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Photo: Arevik Badalyan/World Bank

Just over two months ago, an economist, an IT specialist, a historian and a linguist teamed up at the Vanadzor Technology Center to establish a startup for developing mobile applications. Their first creation, “Digital Menu”, is an app that will help customers in restaurants and cafes to choose dishes and pay online, and it has already started attracting potential clients.

Irina Ghazazyan, a former historian, is the team lead and the driving force behind the startup. She describes how her life has taken a whole new direction since the opening of the Vanadzor Technology Center in late 2016. “We learned programming, set up our own venture, and found space for work and business opportunities,” says Irina.

Vanadzor is the third largest city in northern Armenia and the capital of Lori province. Like other urban areas beyond the country’s capital Yerevan, the city has suffered from industrial decline. Today, its landscape blighted by a huge Soviet-era chemical plant, Vanadzor experiences especially high rates of poverty and long-term youth unemployment.

Patvakan Hakhinyan left Yerevan for Vanadzor some years ago and is today the Business Development Manager for Vanadzor Technology Center. He proudly shows visitors the Center’s labs, shares success stories, and outlines the opportunities that the Center provides to the young generation in Lori region.

“It was obvious that the Center would become an educational hub that offered consultations and workshops, and would house startups and businesses,” says Patvakan. “We are changing the profile of Vanadzor by filling the gap in the quality of IT education and providing new prospects in the city and the region.”

So far, eight companies have opened their offices at the Center, their work ranging from IT to architecture.

“Our training courses are identifying more and more young talent, although the companies that want to open in Vanadzor are also looking for professionals with experience. We need time and patience, but we are on the right track,” says Patvakan.

Hi-Tech Gateway is one of the pioneer companies at the Center. A branch of the American company, ConnectTo, it focuses on research and creating new technologies for the market. Svetlana Jaghatspanian, the company’s team leader, says that the possibilities and services provided by the Center can really help their business to grow. They have hired 30 people so far, while another 8 will be employed soon.

“The Center is unique for Vanadzor, as it is where young people can put their dreams into action,” Svetlana says.

Each month, around 40 people participate in training sessions at the Vanadzor Technology Center. In addition to the trainers based there, professional trainers travel to Vanadzor from Yerevan – they discuss market requirements with participants and outline the knowledge and skills required for employability. The young students are so focused and attentive, they even turn off their phones for a while!

Omni Code, another growing company, provides web services and hosts workshops and training courses. “After our classes, four people got jobs, and seven more will join us in the next round,” says Yuri Virabyan, co-founder of Omni Code.

The Vanadzor Technology Center is open to anyone who is creative and wants to grow professionally – people like Babken Mkhitaryan and Arman Vardanyan, each of whom has a space and a computer at the Center. “We are working on an app that will connect taxi services to their customers,” says Babken. “This will be a more competitive, multifunctional and comprehensive app than the ones currently available on the market.”

The Center is a safe, supportive and fun environment where young people can come together as a community to learn and explore opportunities for future employment. Starting from the age of 10, children can learn the basics of programming. Almost 3,000 students from the region have so far attended these classes.

Vahe Aloyan is a 16-year-old high school student and he also works for the company X-Tech. A true polyglot, he knows eight programming languages. At the age of 14, Vahe designed his first game and won a contest organized by the Vanadzor Technology Center. His second game won an award for best design.

“My desire is to work for a company that produces only games,” Vahe says. “But my biggest dream is to see the gaming industry in Armenia fully developed and supporting the economy.”

In Shirak region, the Gyumri Technology Center (GTC), established four years ago with support from the World Bank’s E-Society and Innovation for Competitiveness project, has been very successful. Currently, the GTC houses 28 companies with over 200 employees and up to 2,000 students, and has business connections with over 10 countries. It is not a local phenomenon, but a regional IT hub.

The Vanadzor Technology Center could follow the same path to success.

Both Technology Centers demonstrate the empowerment of regional development beyond the capital city, and wide-ranging decentralization of the IT industry to the provinces. The right mix of skills and talent is being created locally and nationally, through investments that are economically and socially rewarding.

Source: World Bank

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Scholz and Macron threaten trade retaliation against Biden

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Image source: International Affairs

After publicly falling out, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron have found something they agree on: mounting alarm over unfair competition from the U.S. and the potential need for Europe to hit back, – writes POLITICO.

The German chancellor and the French president discussed their joint concerns during nearly three-and-a-half hours of talks over a lunch of fish, wine and Champagne in Paris.

They agreed that recent American state subsidy plans represent market-distorting measures that aim to convince companies to shift their production to the U.S., according to people familiar with their discussions. And that is a problem they want the European Union to address.

Both leaders agreed that the EU cannot remain idle if Washington pushes ahead with its Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax cuts and energy benefits for companies investing on U.S. soil, in its current form. Specifically, the recently signed U.S. legislation encourages consumers to “Buy American” when it comes to choosing an electric vehicle — a move particularly galling for major car industries in the likes of France and Germany.

The message from the Paris lunch is: ‘If the U.S. doesn’t scale back, then the EU will have to strike back. That move would risk plunging transatlantic relations into a new trade war.’

Crucially, Berlin — which has traditionally been more reluctant when it comes to confronting the U.S. in trade disputes — is indeed backing the French push. Scholz agrees that the EU will need to roll out countermeasures similar to the U.S. scheme if Washington refuses to address key concerns voiced by Berlin and Paris, according to people familiar with the chancellor’s thinking.

Before bringing out the big guns, though, Scholz and Macron want to try to reach a negotiated solution with Washington. This should be done via a new “EU-U.S. Taskforce on the Inflation Reduction Act” that was established during a meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Pyle.

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Futuristic fields: Europe’s farm industry on cusp of robot revolution

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By Sofia Strodt

In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves swiftly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.

“Farmdroid” has made life a lot easier for Mark Buijze, who runs a biological farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the very few owners of robots in European agriculture.

Robots to the rescue

His electronic field worker uses GPS and is multifunctional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, all Buijze has to do is enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.

‘With the robot, the weeding can be finished within one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and roughly four to five workers if done by hand,’ he said. ‘By using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it has to go in the field.’

About 12 000 years ago, the end of foraging and start of agriculture heralded big improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological advancements.

In the current era, however, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one tech trend: artificial intelligence (AI). While already commonly used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and face recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.

Now, advances in research are spurring farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from meeting field-hand needs to detecting crop diseases early.

Lean and green

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require far greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.

One reason for using robots is the need to forgo the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not just mundane but also arduous and time consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune grapevines.

‘In both cases, robots would help,’ said Pinel, who is research and development project manager at France-based Terrena Innovation. ‘That is our idea of the future for European agriculture.’

Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With some 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, it is pioneering a robot technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

‘This initiative is quite innovative,’ said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. ‘It has not been done before.’

In the weeds

AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

‘If you grow a crop like potatoes, typically you plant the crop once per year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times per year,’ he said.

Plus, there is the question of speed. Often machines work faster than any human being can.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, is particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory and days of analysis.

‘With this robot everything is done in the field,’ De Santos said. ‘It can take several samples per hour, providing results within a matter of minutes.’

Eventually, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.

Unloved labour

Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand not because they can work faster than any person but simply because no people are available for the job.

Even before inflation rates and fertiliser prices began to surge in 2021 amid an energy squeeze made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, farmers across Europe were struggling on another front: finding enough field hands including seasonal workers.

‘Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,’ said van Evert. ‘It’s costly and hard to get these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can take away this obstacle.’

The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so it can work in tandem with farm robots.

For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labelled by researchers in ways than can later be read by the AI.

Driverless tractors

The system then uses these large amounts of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – think about the autocorrect feature on laptop computers and mobile phones, for example.

A farming controller comparable to the “brain” of the whole operation decides what needs to happen next or how much work remains to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras – gathers and stores more information as it works, becoming “smarter”.

Crop protection

FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks including disease detection.

Take drones, for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect sick crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

‘If you can’t detect diseases in an early stage, you may lose the produce of an entire field, the production of an entire year,’ said De Santos. ‘The only option is to remove the infected plant.’

For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so identifying and removing diseased plants early on is crucial.

Pooling information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos said. Sharing data gathered by drones with robots or feeding the information into models expands the “intelligence” of the machines.

Although agronomist Pinel doesn’t believe that agriculture will ever be solely reliant on robotics, he’s certain about their revolutionary impact.

‘In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a couple of small robots in the field and let them work all day,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

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Greek shipowners do not care about the boycott of Russian oil

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European sanctions against Russian oil will only lead to higher prices, it will hit the pocket of the end consumer, says Nicolas A. Vernicos, the largest Greek ship owner and president of the International Chamber of Commerce. He made this statement in connection with the decision of the European Union to impose a price cap on Russian oil.

The French ‘Liberation’ published an interview with N. Vernicos under the title “Russian oil: Greek shipowners, in whose hands half of the world’s  tankers, do not care about the boycott.”

Vernicos says: “Transportation costs, which are already skyrocketing, will rise even faster, but the embargo on the transportation of Russian oil by sea will have a positive effect on shipowners, because we will become richer.”

At the same time, he warns that Greece will comply with the new conditions. The European decision on sanctions will bring a net benefit only to maritime carriers. Nicolas A. Vernicos recalls: “The Greek shipping community is the strongest in the world… Nothing can be done without it, and the Greeks will definitely find a way around the sanctions.”

And on the fact that prices will rise, Russia will also earn.

‘Liberation’ writes that in the hands of the Greeks 21% of the world’s shipping tonnage and 40% of the world’s tonnage in the transportation of oil, their trade cooperation with Russia has existed since the 19th century, and they do not intend to stop it.

The EU countries have already agreed on the issue. An agreement was reached to set the price limit at $60 per barrel. The decision came into force on 5 December.

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