The ability to correctly diagnose and treat crop diseases such as banana wilt via mobile phone is just one of endless possibilities for smallholder African farmers if location-specific, or geospatial, information were available, according to researchers.
Such a project would, for example, use mobile devices equipped with global positioning systems and cameras.
“A trained community worker can input the location coordinates, take a photo of the diseased crop, send it to our database, from which we would forward the image for expert review and feedback,” says Whitney Gantt, a project officer with the Grameen Foundation. “In addition to being able to identify a disease, people will know what to do.”
The Grameen Foundation is conducting a seven-month pilot project in two Ugandan districts, whereby community workers collect and disseminate information on crop acreage and projected harvests through mobile device surveys.
In the scheme, 45 community knowledge workers, selected from existing farmers’ groups, are trained in using mobile devices for data collection.
Each has a mobile phone, some equipped with cameras. From a drop-down menu on the phones, the community workers are able to enter the required data, which is then transmitted to the foundation’s database for agricultural forecasting.
The phones cost between US$30 (about R270) each and $330 (R3 000). “It is a cost-effective method and we are also testing the three devices to see which collects better data,” Gantt says.
Finding community knowledge workers who are literate and fluent in English is difficult, as is reaching women farmers, as most phone-owners are men.
Network connectivity and lack of electricity in the rural parts are a also a problem and can delay information transmission.
Ensuring accurate data is also a challenge. “Getting information that is actionable is very useful... how do you ensure that the data is accurate?”
According to Gantt, the goal of the project is to work intensively with the community workers with a view to a possible scale-up. From the information collected, the foundation also hopes to link farmers with buyers. “A lot of providers are without such information,” she says.
In another application, a study in Ethiopia is expected to capture information on rural road types, sea and inland water ports, airports, border crossings, private and community depots and silos and market locations for use by farmers and other service providers, according to Tesfaye Korme of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development.
The use of high-resolution mapping is another possibility.
“High-resolution mapping for fields would not only help with field acreage knowledge but could also be a precursor for sustainable land management,” says Pierre Traore of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. It could also be used to map low fertility areas within farms.
According to researchers, geospatial information on soils and the best crops, appropriate farming techniques and early warning on droughts, floods, diseases and pests, as well as up-to-date market and price information, would not only maximise crop yields and market access but also improve livelihoods and reduce uncertainties in production.
Such information does not reach those who most need it.
“The information is often used by a select group of project farmers yet many such projects do not last beyond project funding,” says Jennifer Barnes of the consulting group CH2M Hill. “Current data is also not provided in relevant time and map scales yet there is a need for the information to reach farmers rapidly.”
Says Enrica Porcari of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) : “There is a lot of information at the policy level yet the problems are at the local level. Although we have solutions, they often don’t come off the shelf.
“There are challenges in the nodes of the chain from the researchers to the farmers.” Porcari adds that the mandate of research institutions does not extend to dissemination of information to the farmers. CGIAR is holding a meeting in Nairobi on opportunities in geospatial technology and accessing a broader range of users.