Nowadays most of us are nearly inseparable from our smartphones, and farmers are no exception. The spread and accessibility of digital technologies open the door for an exciting range of novel approaches to conduct research, share and apply knowledge, and promote sustainable agriculture. Still, a digital divide exists for many smallholders.
Last year, the Alliance harnessed new technologies from artificial intelligence to smartphone apps to create inclusive agricultural solutions from African banana fields to high above the Amazon.
Harnessing citizen science for climate adaptation
A 2019 study found success in applying citizen science approaches to climate-smart agriculture, specifically involving farmers to assess which crop varieties are best suited for different growing conditions. Inspired by environmental scientists and ecologists who have previously created databases with the help of citizen contributors such as bird watchers, the researchers organized on-farm experiments in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and India to see if these methods could accelerate the generation of agricultural information.
Wheat varieties grown as part of crowdsourcing trials in India. Bioversity International/T.Rastogi
They applied a citizen science approach called tricot (triadic comparisons of technologies) in which each farmer planted seeds from a personalized test package of three random varieties. The researchers kept track of seed varieties and the location of plots, but the experiments themselves were up to farmers, who generated data while planting a total of 12,409 plots. A ranking-based feedback format allowed the farmers, even those with low literacy skills, to contribute their evaluation data through various channels, such as their mobile phones.
After connecting farmer-generated data with agroclimatic and soil data, researchers found positive results, indicating a clear link between variety performance and climate, and confirming previous knowledge about variety tolerances.
How do these findings help farmers? The authors write that the farmer trials can improve variety recommendations as they are more targeted to local climates. They show that the recommendations generated by farmers improve those provided before by scientists. In the future, this information could be blended with seasonal climate forecasts to further improve the recommendations and can help create variety portfolios that diminish climate risk.
“This study does not only confirm that our initial hunch was correct: citizen science can help farmers with climate adaptation. It also shows the enormous potential of citizen science in agriculture,” said author Jacob van Etten. “It opens a whole new area of possibilities.”
Artificial intelligence gives “hope” to banana farmers
Specialists agree that early detection of disease is essential to protecting banana production, which is a staple food and a vital source of income for farmers around the world. To address this, Alliance scientists have pioneered a new approach that takes advantage of many farmers’ access to mobile phones, putting new detection power in their hands.
By downloading the smartphone tool Tumaini (Swahili for “Hope”), farmers are able to scan their banana plants for signs of five major diseases and a common pest. The tool has provided a 90 percent successful detection rate when tested in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Benin, China and Uganda. Once the presence of a disease or pest is confirmed, the tool can refer farmers to extension workers who could help stop outbreaks.
The Tumaini app is easily downloaded onto farmers’ phones. Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
Tumaini applies the power of state-of-the-art “deep learning” artificial intelligence to process visual information and recognize signs of disease, as explained in an article published in Plant Methods.
The application can detect diseases and pests that threaten banana plants. Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT
“There is very little data on banana pests and diseases for low-income countries, but an AI tool such as this one offers an opportunity to improve crop surveillance, fast-track control and mitigation efforts, and help farmers to prevent production losses,” said co-author Michael Selvaraj, who developed the tool with Alliance colleagues in Africa.
Tumaini can also upload useful data from farmers’ phones. The app has the potential to create a satellite-powered, globally connected network to control disease and pest outbreaks.
The digital divide will be closed through extended coverage of internet and affordable mobile phone use in rural areas. The potential for helping smallholder farmers is hard to overstate. With the right tools, in the form of smartphones and apps attuned to smallholders’ needs, interests and abilities, farmers will have timely access to climate services, helpful outreach from extension agents, and more efficient access to markets and credit.
Alliance researchers and their colleagues made significant advances in 2019 to help bring more farmers useful apps and artificial intelligence.
In a collaboration with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), through its innovations unit, IDB Lab, Alliance scientists launched a project to widen the implementation of e-kakashi, an app developed by SoftBank for real-time information for productivity in rice paddies. Tested in fields at the Alliance’s Americas Hub in Colombia with the support of Japan’s Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development, e-kakashi is being deployed around Colombia with the IDB Lab’s support.
The Geofarmer app facilitates citizen science. CIAT
Smallholders need to be actively involved in the digital revolution. GeoFarmer, an app designed by Alliance scientists and partners, allows smallholders to be both beneficiaries of technology and citizen scientists. Tested with farmers in Colombia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda, GeoFarmer users produced and shared tens of thousands of data points. The findings, published last year, spurred wider use of the app.
The mobile application has been tested around the world, including here in Ethiopia. CIAT.
“An app like GeoFarmer gives farmers a voice and helps close the communication gap between people working in the development sector, researchers working on development technologies and farmers,” said Andrew Jarvis, the Alliance’s Associate Director General.
The Alliance’s suite of digital tools for agriculture grew substantially last year. Choco SAFE helps producers, processors and exporters in South America know if their cacao can be processed into products that meet EU market standards for cadmium. Research showed how artificial intelligence can be applied on-farm to boost maize yields. And a manual was published for Terra-i, a tool to monitor vegetation loss in real-time that becoming more widely used by land managers across the globe.