Digital development in agricultural extension for smallholder farmers

By Claire Curry, Senior Project Manager, CABI

Continuing to deliver an effective service to extension staff using appropriate technology is an essential part of maintaining the global food supply and improving farmer livelihoods during this challenging time with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year has been difficult for everyone and we’re all relying on technology more than ever for keeping in contact with family and friends – the dreaded Zoom quizzes! Many of us have also had to move our work online as much as possible. This is as true in agricultural advisory services any other sector. Fortunately, the increasing use of technology in extension over the past few years has put extension workers in a much stronger position to mitigate the effects of restrictions on both travel and gatherings due to COVID-19. 

Introduction to Plantwise

Copyright: CABI

Plantwise, a global programme led by CABI with the support of donors, launched in 2011 with the aim to increase crop yields by providing smallholder farmers with science-based and sustainable recommendations. The programme team work with national plant protection organisations (NPPOs) in the 34 countries the programme operates in to set up networks of plant clinics. These clinics are run by trained agricultural advisors, known as plant doctors, and supported by practical integrated pest management (IPM) information in the Plantwise Knowledge Bank.

Plant clinics work in a similar way to clinics for human health; farmers visit their local clinic with a sample of their affected crop, and plant doctors assess the symptoms, diagnose the problem(s) and provide a prescription of recommendations. This information, initially recorded on a paper form and typed up back at the NPPO office, is now recorded digitally through tablets or smartphones with this reducing the time lag between clinic visits and data use, as well as minimising human error at the data entry stage.  

Plant clinics embrace technology

In 2014, tablet devices started to be introduced to the clinics, first in a small pilot in Kenya, where plant doctors received training in how to operate the devices, as well as how to use them at plant clinics. This represented a huge shift in their workflows and took some getting used to, particularly for plant doctors who were less familiar with the technology. However, the benefits the tablets offered outweighed any initial challenges faced in implementation. Farmers also liked the technology and receiving their recommendation by text message. It worked well for them as they already carry their phones with them to the field and didn’t run the risk of the paper forms being misplaced or damaged. The pilot’s success led to the roll out of tablets to plant doctors across the country and eventually to other countries operating Plantwise with the support of both the core Plantwise donors and CHAP

No more long motorbike journeys for paper prescription forms

Copyright: CABI

Plantwise developed a bespoke data collection app, allowing data to be collected efficiently, with plant doctors benefitting from picklists of frequently used crop and pest names, clinic locations and other helpful options. The tablets also record the GPS location data with this being much more accurate than a village name which doesn’t reference the exact location. They also allow plant doctors to take photos of the farmer’s sample. The data are saved to the device and sent to the database as soon as the tablet has an internet connection. This means that data are available for the NPPO to analyse and act on much faster, which can lead to more efficient identification of new invasive pests, or training needs for the plant doctors. 

Communicating through Telegram 

Telegram – no, not the old-fashioned type from the Queen. This Telegram is an app, which is loaded to the plant doctors’ tablets. It allows them to send instant messages including images to each other to discuss diagnoses and new management techniques, as well as wish each other well during public holidays! Besides strengthening this peer-to-peer learning and communication, Telegram also allows the plant doctors to more easily communicate with diagnostic experts. In Ghana, the plant doctors even began a series of lectures where special guest expert speakers were invited to the Telegram group to present to the plant doctors and answer their questions.    

Engaging education

With tablets in the hands of a large number of plant doctors, CABI has developed two simulation games – the PestSmart Diagnostic Simulator develops skills in diagnosing key pests and the Crop Management Simulator focuses on the user’s ability to recommend suitable IPM solutions. These have enabled plant doctors to reinforce their plant health knowledge through decision making in true-to-life scenarios. Training hints delivered throughout the games help to guide the plant doctors towards the most appropriate management strategy, to ensure they are offering accurate diagnoses alongside safe and effective recommendations. 

Any crop, any problem 

Like a general practitioner in human healthcare, the plant doctors do not know on any day what crops and problems will be brought to them, and new pest invasions can happen at any time. The tablets opened up the opportunity for plant doctors to access the wealth of plant health information on the Plantwise Knowledge Bank to support their service, without having to print and carry around bulky factsheet booklets or manuals. Developing a mobile app, the Plantwise Factsheet Library, provided the option to download up-to-date content ready to be used at clinics or in the field where there is often little or no connectivity. The content on the Plantwise Knowledge Bank is open to all and has continued to be a valued resource for plant health information, despite clinic activity being affected by COVID-19. An analysis of key Plantwise factsheets by Dr Claire Beverley, Head of the Plantwise Knowledge Bank, using best estimates of comparable use showed a 157% increase in views of Pest Management Decision Guides compared to the same period in 2019.

New innovations for the Plantwise network

As a result of the successes of Plantwise, which has focused on collaboration with national partners and sustainability from the outset, the network of plant clinics has become a well-established and well-connected part of national plant health systems. As a result, the plant doctors have become key in other innovative projects, such as the Pest Risk Information Service (PRISE) project. PRISE uses earth observation data, real-time field observations and plant-pest lifecycles in a data cube to forecast the risk of pest outbreaks. The plant doctor network is ideally positioned to receive bulletins and other technical information, disseminate it to farmers on the ground, and provide feedback on the accuracy of the forecasts, allowing the team to continue to improve the service. 

CABI looks forward to continuing to take Plantwise from strength to strength with further technology developments through its new programme, Plantwise+, which builds on the Plantwise programme and CABI’s Action on Invasives programme. More information about the impact and future of both of these programmes can be found as part of a recent evaluation conducted by the Royal Tropical Institute in The Netherlands

Find out more about the specific benefits of plant clinics on the CHAP website –