“No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid!” Passionate words spoken in 2014 during an indelible Oscar moment. The utterance of these words, coupled with the winning of an Academy Award, announced Lupita Nyong’o’s entry into the global stage. Two years later in Lupita’s country of origin, Kenya, long-held dreams in the plant health sector are realized.
Indeed, the journey to realizing the usefulness of mobile technologies for the plant health sector has been long, and to some extent treacherous. Was the Plantwise program setting up the agricultural extension officers for failure? Was the program having unrealistic expectations? Could it be, in the program’s quest to keep up with the times, it was essentially building an ivory tower? All these were questions Plantwise grappled with in 2014 when it introduced mobile technologies for the running of plant clinics.
Plantwise, a global program led by CABI, aims to reduce crop losses arising from plant health problems. The program operates through the establishment of networks of plant clinics situated at locations easily accessed by farmers. The plant clinics are run by agricultural extension workers, also known as ‘plant doctors’, trained in the visual diagnosis and giving good advice to farmers.
Farmers bring ‘sick’ plants to the plant clinics and receive practical advice for managing plant health problems. The interaction between the farmer and the ‘plant doctor’ is documented in a paper prescription form.
‘Plant doctors’ operating in plant clinics where mobile technologies were being deployed were to use tablet computers to fill an electronic version of the prescription form. Furthermore, the extension workers were to send practical advice to farmers via SMS and access a wealth of online and offline plant health information.
The apprehension within Plantwise on the deployment of mobile technologies for plant clinic operations stemmed from the fact, not many digital solutions for the plant health sector sustain beyond a typical three-year donor project.
Riding on these fears, the program proceeded with the pilot study, introducing tablet computers to plant clinics in three incremental stages.
Findings from the pilot study indicated considerable benefits to integrating tablet computers into plant clinic operations. Noteworthy, there were improvements in the speed of data transmission. In addition, extension workers were giving higher quality pest management advice to farmers, and chat groups were enabling ‘plant doctors’ to support each other.
Following these encouraging findings, in 2015, the program sought to undertake a carefully managed expansion. An expansion that was made possible, thanks in part to a donation from Dow AgroSciences through their Hunger Solutions work.
A year later, there was a need to rapidly scale up the initiative to include all the plant clinics in Kenya. The only challenge, however, was the large setup cost associated with such an undertaking. To manage this expense, the program instituted cost mitigation measures.
First off, unlike the previous workshops, the training was held in government facilities and not in hotels. Also, the workshops were held in the regions where the bulk of the participants came from as opposed to gathering all of them in a central location.
Second, and crucially, the program’s core support for the initiative was complemented through additional third party funding. For the second year running, the initiative benefitted from another donation from Dow AgroSciences through their Hunger Solutions work. By bringing together the private sector, donor and government buy-in, 160 ‘plant doctors’ are successfully trained on the use of a tablet computer and four associated software applications.
The four mobile applications the extension officers were trained on are Plantwise data collection app – for filling and submitting electronic prescription forms; Plantwise Factsheet library app – for accessing plant health information; Telegram – for diagnostic support and communication; and Plant doctor simulator – for enhancing diagnostic skills.
To ensure the tablet computers are used for the intended purpose, all the recipients signed ‘user agreements’ that defined the responsibilities of the provider as well as those of the recipients.
Like in the previous training on the same, the workshops, numbering nine in total adopt a user-centered training approach. This approach is informed by the fact; most of the participants are older adults who are computer beginners hence there is need to build their confidence on the use of the device.
Similarly, the involvement of Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries (MOALF) staff as facilitators further enriches the training. The MOALF facilitators had earlier on gone through the same training, and it was now their turn to pass the knowledge to their peers.
Evidence that this user-centered training approach is effective, at the lapse of the nine workshops; all the 160 extension workers become proficient in the handling of the mobile devices. In fact, exactly one month after being trained, the ‘plant doctors’ running the Boro plant clinic in Siaya County held their first two plant clinic sessions. During these sessions, they were able to attend to farmers and in the process submitted a total of 24 electronic prescription forms.
Also, within a week of being trained, the plant doctors start to actively communicate with their peers using the cross-messaging platform installed in their devices. Through the platform, they post photos of diseased plants; contribute to discussions on diagnostic support or pest management recommendations; and update each other on their activities.
“With this effort (expansion of e-plant clinics), (crop) pests and diseases will not find anywhere to hide as more corners are covered by (our) soldiers (‘plant doctors’). Let the next gear be engaged!” Benard Kimeto, a plant clinic supervisor for Narok County, ably captures the mindset of those overseeing the implementation of Plantwise in Kenya.