Building agricultural networks of farmers and scientists via mobile phones: case study of banana disease surveillance in Uganda
This article in the Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology highlights an important challenge that is threatening agriculture in Africa: the difficulty in collecting timely data on disease spread and effectiveness of on-farm control methods. This study served as a case study for assessing the viability of a participatory GIS (Geographic Information System) to enable a plant diagnostics network with fieldworkers. The use of mobile phone applications and a centralized database were integrated to provide a blueprint for how a range of agriculture-focused field organizations can collect data, explain events, predict outcomes and adapt and refine strategies with more accurate, cost-efficient and timely information. Over the course of 2 months, 38 Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) using mobile phones, MTN Mobile Internet and GPS devices collected 3018 surveys documenting the presence/absence of three banana diseases: Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), Fusarium Wilt (FW) and Banana Bunchy Top disease (BBTD) in Bushenyi and Mbale districts in Uganda. Costs were saved by only mobilizing CKWs who then trained the communities on methods of banana disease detection, preventative measures and disease control procedures; only when doubts over identification or control occurred did the IITA and NARO technical team then prioritize visits. Although the CKWs provided an efficient and cost-effective information channel that can be leveraged to integrate the efforts of scientists with the needs of rural communities, there were significant gaps in prior farmer knowledge on the three targeted diseases, including how to identify or control them, despite extensive awareness campaigns preceding this initiative. Factsheets used for reference following training greatly improved CKW prior knowledge of disease recognition and control methods; hence, 90% of the surveys conducted during the second month met the data quality standards based on survey completeness, GPS accuracy and quality of symptomatic plant photos. There was significant and consistent demand by farmers for CKW services throughout the pilot period. In-depth training and continuous support of CKWs is thus essential. The technology infrastructure is scalable, and further integration of technology components promises a customizable web-based tool for data collection, GIS analysis, information dissemination and management of agriculture extension operations.