Combatting Fall Armyworm in Ethiopia

The fall armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, was first reported on the African continent in early 2016 and, in Ethiopia alone, has infested approximately a quarter of the 2.6 million hectares of land planted with maize since 2017. To tackle the devastation, the Government of Ethiopia set up a National Technical Advisory Committee on FAW (FAW TAC) in early 2018 which includes government stakeholders such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Resources (MoALR) and the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC); agriculture universities, donors such as FAO and USAID; and implementing partners such as Digital Green and Fintrac. The FAW TAC is faced with a challenging mission. Given the extent of devastation that FAW has already wrought on smallholder maize farmers in Ethiopia, one tool or strategy to survey, monitor, report and combat the pest will not be enough. To tackle the national spread, an effective solution will require a menu of options and a multi-pronged approach.

The Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity project (DLEC) is piloting a multi-channel, multi-stakeholder approach leveraging video-enabled extension, a national IVR question and answer (Q&A) forum, a mobile-based farmer and extension agent survey, and the Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS) – a mobile application deployed by the MoALR and FAO. We hypothesize that the systematic integration of these channels can create a demand-driven, timely and responsive pest management system.

DLEC is implementing the pilot in collaboration with the Feed the Future Ethiopia Value Chain Activity (FTF-EVCA) implemented by Fintrac in ten woredas in Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia and will include 25,000 farmers. The outcome we are seeking is to leverage existing national systems and partnerships with ongoing projects to create a holistic digital suite of tools and collect real-time data to enable rapid, targeted decisions about how to develop focused and contextual content, train extension agents and farmers and monitor performance to combat the spread of FAW.

The diagram above shows the multi-pronged approach that involves government extension agents showing local videos on FAW scouting and control mechanisms, farmers calling the IVR Q&A line to record FAW sightings, government and partners conducting a mobile survey for additional real-time data, and the FAW TAC and others using the multiple data sources for effective and efficient decision-making on FAW mitigation. One of the roles that DLEC plays is to ensure that the FAW control practices shown in the videos can actually be implemented by the farmers. The videos also promote good agricultural practices to get high nutrients and reduced pests in maize plants such as tillage after harvesting for soil polarization, timely planting, intercropping and push-pull cropping; local practices such as broadcasting of ash, sand, pepper and soap into infested whorls; and organized system-related activities such as parasitoid and pathogen verification and registration.

Our hope is that this multi-pronged integrated approach can help farmers combat FAW, and the lessons learned can be leveraged to fight other pests and diseases as well. We’ve just begun implementation so watch this space for updates, results and lessons learned. And do share what you’re learning in pest management and integration of digital tools and messages to enable real-time decision making.

Keeping it Simple: Technology for Smallholder Farmers

Agricultural practices in developing countries such as India are often influenced by traditional practices and farmers’ collective wisdom, which do not necessarily translate to optimal productivity or profits. Also, recent studies reveal that most small-scale farmers or the youth in the farming families no longer view farming as a sustainable livelihood source.

However, as per India’s census of 2011, 263 million people are engaged in the agriculture sector. It provides employment to 56% of the Indian workforce. The sector’s performance has strong ripple effects on other sectors, directly or indirectly, as well as far-reaching implications on the social, political and economic spheres.

Most agricultural extension and advisory services in developing countries have been following traditional methods including on-farm demonstrations, organizing farmer groups, and farmers’ training, training of extension providers and developing training modules and materials. However, these have been costly, slow and limited in effectiveness due to various reasons such as generic, top-down content and language barriers.

It was almost ten years ago that a group of engineers and economists in Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets office in Bengaluru, India hit upon an idea to support agricultural extension. The solution was quite simple– to involve the community itself in developing content by putting the technology into their own hands– and which proved to be at least ten times more efficient and seven times more likely to encourage farmers to adopt new practices compared to conventional agricultural extension systems.

The idea eventually spun off as a non-profit–Digital Green–which developed the approach further. To ensure usage of technology available to smallholder farmers in a manner that connects the farmer with the content, a community video production team creates videos using simple, low-cost tools, averaging eight to ten minutes in length. The content is locally relevant, evidence-based and produced in the local language. Members of the community are cast in these short videos enabling viewers to connect instantly with the message. Subject matter experts review the video content before it is finalized for screening using battery-operated Pico projectors where a trained village resource person mediates a discussion around it. Followups are done regularly to ensure the adoption of actual practices.

According to the FAO, global food production will need to rise by 70% to meet the projected demand by 2050. This points to a critical need to act quickly to support farmers–especially, smallholder farmers who account for 80% of global agricultural production from developing regions–get timely and correct information to increase production and gains.

Despite several well-meaning attempts to use ICTs for empowering communities, its true potential is yet to be harnessed in the agriculture sector while other more complex technologies continue to be developed. Learning from Digital Green’s experience, the solution to this problem lies in capitalizing the rise of, and ubiquitous nature of, information and communication technologies (ICTs). Other low-cost technology such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems and text messages, that smallholder farmers have access to, can also be used to send out additional information or reinforce messages. Various development organizations, technology firms, and research teams have already begun exploring how the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and precision farming can be used to empower farmers.

With newer technology being developed, it is possible to provide more nuanced solutions to farmers, if the potential of these technologies is used more effectively. We are currently, in partnership with the Government of Andhra Pradesh’s Department of Agriculture and Cooperation (APDoAC), piloting multiple technologies such as drones and helium balloons as well as soil moisture sensors, weather forecasting systems to test how newer technology can be further engaged to better service smallholder farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India.

This partnership among various organizations dedicated to piloting technology-based innovation in agriculture highlights the importance of tapping into available technology to enable greater productivity in agriculture while empowering the farmers to adapt to newer technology and challenges. As our world evolves, we certainly need more evolved and collaborative ways of adapting the simultaneously evolving technology, to accelerate progress for all.