Feed the Future
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What’s the Place of Technology in the Fall Armyworm Crisis?

This post was written by Ellen Galdava of FHI 360 and Kwasi Donkor of USAID.

Everyone from amateur gardeners to agricultural experts know that pest management is one of the most important aspects of good agricultural practice. This remains true for smallholder farmers. For smallholder farmers who often borrow money for seed and equipment before a harvest, a pest outbreak can not only destroy a harvest, it can also mean serious financial setback. Better equipping smallholder farmers to manage pest outbreaks will lead to stronger crop yields and increased food security. However, this is easier said than done. 

What is the Fall Armyworm and How Bad Is It?

In 2016, the fall armyworm, a pest native to the Americas that can demolish a large number of crops, arrived as an invasive species in Africa. A smallholder farmer in Africa is already saddled with everyday challenges that range from weather to accessing financial services. The fall armyworm outbreak further endangered food stability and increased the hurdles of everyday life.

Compared to other pests, the fall armyworm is especially damaging because it eats both the vegetative and reproductive parts of plants. The destructive nature of the fall armyworm makes it critical and expensive to exterminate. Brazil, for example, spends up to $600 million annually fighting it. And while scientists and farmers in the Americas are knowledgeable about and prepared for fall armyworm, its appearance in Nigeria in January 2016 took African farmers by surprise. While they had seen a local armyworm before, they had never encountered this invasive species. Nearly two years after initially being spotted in Nigeria, with the help of its quick reproductive cycle and unique migratory capacity, in December 2017, the fall armyworm had spread to 38 other African countries.

The existing fall armyworm crisis in Africa endangers crop yields, food security and most of all threatens to deepen the poverty gap. Data from the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) shows that 13.5 million tons of maize valued at $3 billion are at risk of fall armyworm in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is equivalent to 20 percent of the total production in the region. These numbers show that a potential food crisis in Africa may be imminent if the right pest management solutions are not found soon.

Technological Solutions

In trying to resolve development challenges rapidly and efficiently, development practitioners increasingly turn to technology to produce quick, efficient and scalable solutions. For that reason, mSTAR and Digital Development for Feed the Future (D2FTF) decided to explore the possibility of developing a mobile application for pest management. The goal was to enable smallholder farmers to diagnose and find treatment for pests. The mobile application would enable farmers to quickly identify the pest and decide on the treatment plan. Before investing in the application, the team conducted a landscape assessment of existing technologies and interviewed farmers and extension workers in Ghana to identify the feasibility of such a high-tech intervention.

Diagnostic vs. Management Support Technology

While analyzing existing pest management technologies, it became apparent that agriculture development organizations generally use two types: diagnostic and management support technology. An example of a diagnostic technology is Plantix, a machine learning application, which assists farmers and extension workers to identify pests. An example of management support technology is using WhatsApp messaging groups as a management tool to enable trained extension workers, plant doctors and farmers to diagnose plant infections and determine the best pesticide for the specific pest.

Most organizations working on pest management have been focused on using management support technology solutions rather than diagnostic technologies. For example, USAID/Ghana’s Agriculture Development and Value Chain Enhancement (ADVANCE) project, which improves the competitiveness of agricultural value chains, implemented pheromone traps and GIS mapping to model the movement of fall armyworm. ADVANCE employees, in partnership with extension officers, collected and analyzed data from 57 traps to track the spread of fall armyworm. Also in Ghana, CABI, an organization that supports farmers, uses WhatsApp as a place for plant doctors and extension workers to share information and ask questions about pests. In Zambia, CABI created Pest Risk Information Service which notifies plant doctors when there is a risk of pest infection.

While implementing strong management technologies, CABI and USAID/Ghana’s ADVANCE project have begun to implement diagnostic systems as well. These include hotlines, training extension workers and plant doctors on how to identify pests, and recommending the best solutions to manage them. CABI’s WhatsApp groups have been used by a limited number of extension workers and plant doctors as a source of identifying pests through picture sharing. While the adoption of these support technologies has expanded, most organizations researched have not used more sophisticated diagnostic support technologies, such as Plantix. 

Development organizations have also been using low-tech solutions to provide more information on managing pests. With the recent invasion of fall armyworm, they now focus especially on spreading fall armyworm information. In many cases, however, these solutions were reactive to the invasion and not proactive. For example, Farm Radio International, which uses radio programming to share information on agricultural best practices, began integrating pest management for fall armyworm into programming only after the outbreak in Ghana in May 2017. This was nearly a year and a half after the initial outbreak in Nigeria. Similarly, FarmerlineEsoko and Viamo began sharing information on pest management and fall armyworm via messages in local languages after the outbreak.

A Continental Solution that Combines Both?

With the understanding that most technology solutions used by agricultural development organizations revolve around management, mSTAR and D2FTF decided to explore the feasibility of the development of a mobile application that would both diagnose and provide a treatment plan. However, during the research it became apparent that with the spread and rate of the fall armyworm outbreak, interventions need to be deployed not only at the country level but on a continental level. Therefore, D2FTF decided to launch the Fall Armyworm Tech Prize instead of developing a mobile application specifically for Ghana. This prize will assist USAID in creating innovative digital tools and approaches to track the path of the pest, communicate interventions to smallholders and relay information to agriculture decision-makers and agents. The Fall Armyworm Tech Prize opened for applications on March 28, 2018. To learn more, follow the link here.