How Data from Plant Clinics is reducing crop losses in the developing world
By Andrea Powell, Chief Information Officer at CABI.
When you feel unwell, you visit your doctor in his or her clinic, your symptoms are discussed and a diagnosis is made. Often you will be given a prescription, or simply advised on lifestyle changes to improve your health and well-being. If you are lucky, this service will be provided to you free-of-charge or at low cost because you live in a country with a developed human health system and an integrated medical service.
For smallholder farmers in the developing world, a new service is spreading that provides exactly the same service for their diseased or damaged crops – it’s called Plantwise, and it’s a global initiative led by CABI. Plantwise currently operates in 34 countries in the developing world, through a network of over 1500 Plant clinics, operated by trained Plant Doctors. These clinics are set up in markets and other public places where farmers tend to congregate, so that it’s easy for farmers to get the advice they need.
Not only does Plantwise provide a valuable service to farmers, helping them to lose less of what they grow to pests and diseases, but it also provides useful insight into the spread and prevalence of certain problems thanks to the data gathering carried out by the Plant Doctors. An early notification of a devastating crop pest can save a whole harvest from destruction, and can help governments put in place prevention and control measures.
In 2015 CABI piloted the use of simple Android tablets by Plant Doctors, to enable them to collect data more efficiently and accurately, as well as to refer to the vast amount of authoritative information provided through the Plantwise Knowledge Bank in an offline App. The tablets helped them to take pictures of the damaged crops for future reference, or to communicate with their fellow Plant Doctors if they came across an unknown problem. There is even a Plant Doctor simulation game on the device, to help them brush up their diagnostic skills
The pilots (in Kenya, Rwanda and Sri Lanka) have been so successful that the programme is being rolled out to 6 new countries and it is anticipated that the data collected will grow exponentially, allowing large-scale analysis of pest and disease distribution. Such analysis will facilitate surveillance and management strategies, and could even halt or restrict the spread of such devastating problems as maize lethal necrosis disease or the tomato leafminer.
Data gathered through the Plantwise tablets (and through existing paper-based methods) also enables the monitoring of the Plant Doctors themselves, ensuring that they are making accurate diagnoses, giving appropriate advice to farmers and not prescribing the use of banned chemicals, still a problem in many parts of the world. The skills that are being developed by the Plant Doctors give them the confidence to identify problems and prescribe treatments, knowing that they are learning from validated accumulated evidence, not just anecdotes or old wives’ tales.
Other Notes from Andrea Powell