‘Telephone Farmers’ are Using Mobile Phones to Detect Diseases and Manage Farms

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A farmer in Africa can monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, as well as the performance of irrigation equipment in their out-of-town farms while working in the city. In the near future, farmers in Nigeria would be able to snap pictures of visible symptoms of diseases (e.g. white blotches on leaves of a cassava plant) with mobile phones, and instantly find out whether their plants are diseased, what the infections are, and what to do about them.

This new breed of tech-savvy farmers emerging in Africa are sometimes called “telephone farmers”, they are making use of a growing number of technologies and platforms to help them choose and manage their crops, and generally keep an eye on their farms  more efficiently.

IBM Cloud Farming

Tech giant IBM’s EZ-Farm project – currently being trialled in Kenya – is exploring how sophisticated data analytics can help farmers keep in touch with what is really happening on their out-of-town smallholdings. Sensors strategically placed around the farm, monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, as well as the performance of irrigation equipment, infrared cameras measure rates of photosynthesis, which can indicate whether crops are being watered too much or too little. These data is streamed wirelessly to the IBM Cloud, which can then be accessed by farmers via a Smartphone app.

“These ‘telephone farmers‘ can often only travel to visit their farms at weekends,” says IBM lead water and agriculture researcher, Dr Kala Fleming. “They are looking for smart solutions to better manage the water resources needed to irrigate and grow their crops.
“Creating a digital network of small-scale farms and water users also provides opportunities for other organisations looking to launch value-added services to generate revenue and increase productivity.”

However, not too many small-scale farmers will be able to afford such hi-tech equipment.

MbeguChoice Farm App

There are cheaper mobile solutions that can have an equally empowering effect for some farmers, who have often suffered from lack of information and poor advice. More than 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is engaged in farming, but there are just 70 agricultural researchers for every million people, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. This gap can be reduced by the use of mobile phones to get information from researcher without leaving the farm.

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In Kenya, farmers are turning to the web app MbeguChoice own buy Agri Experience for help. On their farm, they can consult useful agricultural data on their mobile phones. The MbeguChoice app requires a user to answer a few simple questions about their location and the desired type of crop, and then says what seed varieties are available, who sells them, and what properties they have, such as maturation periods and drought tolerance.

WeFarm SMS

Other services are sticking to tried-and-tested SMS or text message, to deliver useful information, given the continuing prevalence of ordinary mobiles among rural farmers. “A large proportion of the world has no access to the internet or information services,” says Teresa Nekesa, WeFarm’s Africa programme manager. “This is particularly true for small-scale farmers who often live in isolated rural areas, far from internet kiosks or expert advice.”We had to use technology which was already widely accessible and available to the groups we wanted to work with.”

WeFarm allows farmers to ask questions about specific problems on their farms, and receive crowd-sourced answers directly from their peers. More than 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in farming and more than 4,500 farmers have signed up since it launched in February.

FarmDrive

FarmDrive provides a simple record-keeping platform that helps farmers build a credit profile and input their financial information via SMS, Android app or online. The company works with credit agencies and commercial banks to ensure the information coming from the farmer is relevant.

Yet Peris Bosire, co-founder of Kenyan company FarmDrive, believes information is essentially useless if it does not come hand-in-hand with finance. “There is a huge funding gap and we feel technology can play a role in filling that gap,” Ms Bosire says.
With FarmDrive, farmers are now able to keep records via SMS on ordinary mobile phone and receive tailored reports of his farming activities. This can help to improve and grow their credit profile and eligibility to a loan.

Future Smartphones Will Tell You What’s Killing Your Plants

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Here is the future that David Hughes envisions, and it’s slightly closer to reality. Hughes and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, fed a computer with images of 54,000 leaves, and allowed it to learn the features that signify disease. It churned out an algorithm that could diagnose 26 different diseases in the foliage of 14 crops with almost perfect accuracy—99.35 percent.

Once the program is built, it can run on a Smartphone, and since a growing proportion of the world’s population has mobile broadband access—69 percent at the end of last year, and climbing—the team is hopeful that an app could prove valuable to farmers in the developing world, who need it most.

Other diagnostic apps have been developed, but they either offer encyclopedias of images, or put you in touch with an expert. None is automatic.

Hughes has teams of photographers snapping shots of rice and cassava. “I work mainly on cassava, and there alone the techniques could benefit tens of millions of farmers who are badly affected by mosaic and brown streak diseases,” says James Legg from the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, and one of Hughes’ collaborators. “They cause annual losses in Africa of more than $1 billion.”

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