How ICTs are key to Plantwise’s sustainability

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Tablets being used at a Plantwise plant clinic in India. Photo: CABI

The Plantwise programme has expanded in terms of its plant clinic network, the number of countries involved and the number of farmers reached since its launch in 2011. This expansion has been facilitated to a significant extent by an ICT infrastructure, i.e. the Knowledge Bank and e-plant clinics (plant clinics equipped with tablets). Mozambique, Nepal, Malawi, Nicaragua and Jamaica are piloting e-plant clinics this year and more countries are showing increasing interest. The programme has overcome various obstacles and the advantages, both practical and data-based, are now being seen at a variety of locations.

The advantages of using the tablet and app technology far outweigh those of the paper based Knowledge Bank. As the Knowledge Bank is a central resource, plant doctors in developing countries can access reliable, relevant and up-to-date information on managing crop pests and diseases which they previously couldn’t. Through collecting, collating and analysing data on the pests seen at the plant clinics, it allows national stakeholders (via the Plantwise Online Management System) to deploy their resources effectively. Furthermore, due to the large data set and speed of availability that the app provides, the plant doctors can have the confidence that the recommendations are reliable methods of management, ensuring the farmers receive good quality advice. This combines with the fact that data received through e-plant clinics is clearer and requires significantly less processing time prior to analysis and further decision making. In both Malawi and Zambia new pests have been identified through plant clinics, and undoubtedly the support provided by the tablet and app was vital.

The increasingly large data set can be combined with other sources of data and advice. This combination and subsequent analysis provides new insights and tools to address the challenges of increasing productivity and adapting to climate change. One example of this is CABI’s new PRISE project which aims to develop a crop pest and disease risk forecasting system designed for smallholders and commercial producers in developing countries. This idea underpins the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals and is one explanation of how the tablet and associated app can support sustainable development.

For the technology to be accepted, local authorities must understand the value of data in mitigating pests such as Tuta absoluta. Once this is explained and accepted, then the challenge of staff resources, computer skills and software can be addressed. A Kenyan pilot study in 2014 showed that the data, on average, required half the harmonization time per data set as data collected on paper form. This reduces the amount of staff time required to run the data management system and contributes to improvements on how quickly the data becomes available to the plant doctors and, consequently, the smallholder farmers through SMS.

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Plant doctor M.N. Sagarika uses her tablet to record data about A. Weerasooriya’s bean anthracnose problem. Photo: Abdul Rehman ©CABI

These data-based advantages are also met with more practical advantages. A tablet is far more portable than the paper form of knowledge bank, which is beneficial considering the remoteness of many smallholder farms. Furthermore, smallholder farmers can carry their mobile phones with the advice they have been given, sent by SMS, and check their specific advice whenever is required. This also allows a more continuous communication between farmer and plant doctor which reduces the strain on plant doctors travelling large distances regularly. With the tablets there is also the possibility of communication between plant doctors. In 2016, 12,000 messages were sent in self-help groups. Around 20% of these messages were images which were used locally, regionally and internationally to help ensure accurate diagnostics. Group messages between plant doctors allows for them to see if they are facing similar issues in different geographical locations as well as seek support from each other.

One of the most significant challenges facing the implementation of the tablets is the cost. However, the long term cost of delivering and collecting information using tablets is comparable to the paper form of the Knowledge Bank, as there are no add-ons once the initial infrastructure is set up. When this is balanced against the benefits of ICT, it is clear that the advantages outweigh the costs in the long term.

Overall, the tablet and app technology has advanced significantly since 2014. With sufficient funding in place from local and national authorities in different geographical contexts, they will not only support the sustainability of smallholder farming but also underpin the success of Plantwise as a programme as it faces new challenges.

Joe Sandall is a second year Geography student at the University of Cambridge. His interests focus around sustainable development with a focus on indigenous populations. Within CABI’s work, his understanding of GIS and spatial analysis matches with the work being done by members of the Plantwise team. 


References

CABI Plantwise Annual report 2016

Cameron, K.H., Somachandra, K.P., Curry, C.N., Jenner, W.H. and Hobbs, S.L.A. (2016) Delivering actionable plant health knowledge to smallholder farmers through the Plantwise program. Journal of Agricultural & Food Information, 17(4), 212–229.

Finegold, C., Oronje, M., Leach, M., Karanja, T., Chege, F. and Hobbs, S. (2015) Plantwise Knowledge Bank: Building Sustainable Data and Information Processes to Support Plant Clinics in Kenya. Agricultural Information Worldwide, 6: 96-101.

Wright H.J., Ochilo W., Pearson A., Finegold C., Oronje M., Wanjohi J., Kamau R., Holmes T. & Rumsey A. (2016) Using ICT to Strengthen Agricultural Extension Systems for Plant Health. Journal of Agricultural & Food Information. DOI:10.1080/10496505.2015.1120214

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