UP takes 4IR diagnostic technology to grain farmers

Posted on May 14, 2021

The Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria (UP) in collaboration with Innovation Africa@UP has partnered with various stakeholders to engage smallholder grain farmers to connect with the institute’s Diagnostic Clinic via its digital platform.

This initiative is an attempt to bring fourth industrial revolution technologies to smallholder farmers across South Africa to help them increase their productivity and competitiveness. “We hope to drive plant health management technology use and adoption in the forestry and agriculture industry that is inclusive and underpinned by high-quality specialist research support,” says Dr Osmond Mlonyeni, project manager at Innovation Africa@UP.

To this end, the institute developed disease diagnostic tools and services for its commercial partners, and is now in the process of adapting them for smallholder grain farmers around the country who are linked to FABI research partners. Diagnostic services include specialist laboratory support for pathogen and pest identification, information sources, reference collections and expert knowledge.

There is also a suite of tools in development or in the process of adaptation, as Dr Mlonyeni explains. “Apart from the Diagnostic Clinic app – which is a tool that gives end users access to high-quality specialised plant heath diagnostic technical support, pre-diagnosis and early detection tools – a biosecurity surveillance tool is also being adapted and wireless sensor technology is being tested to aid data collection for eventual deployment on farms. These tools are supported through a cloud-based digital platform that enables data storage, analysis, integration of different types of data and user-friendly presentation of data.”

To ensure that the digital tools being developed are useful and accessible to farmers researchers recently conducted a workshop with a pilot farming community in Elukwatini, Mpumalanga. The purpose of this engagement was to assess the farmers’ basic knowledge, needs and management of diseases, and their access to technology and logistics to support the connection to the Diagnostic Clinic. The knowledge gained from the workshop is being used to adapt the system to the specific needs of the farmers.

Jerry Mthombothi, development provincial coordinator for Grain SA, attended the workshop, and is looking forward to the roll-out of this project. “This initiative will help our farmers a lot because they will be in a position to know what problems their crops have, why they have those problems, the extent of the damage and what the remedy will be when they get the results back. If farmers can find solutions to crop problems as early as possible, that can help them to increase their yields and produce good-quality products.”

Dr Mlonyeni says that the most important insight from the workshop was that co-creation with smallholder farmers is essential to develop relevant technology-inspired solutions to meet their needs. The researchers also came to realise that to help initiate technology adoption, it was vital to convey the use of the tools and their importance in different South African languages.

“As such, we have developed information pamphlets to facilitate communication about these tools, and are in the process of translating these into various South African languages, as well as animating them as videos to share via low-bandwidth digital platforms,” Dr Mlonyeni explains. “We are also incorporating insights gained through interactions with farmers at the workshop, as well as the results from a survey that sought to ascertain their knowledge of plant health management, the technology that is available to them and their inclination towards technology adoption.”

Fortunately, as the workshop showed, the farmers have access to technology devices like smartphones and computers, the internet and email; they also have a fair understanding of how to use them, all of which is important for the use of the Diagnostic Clinic app. “On the whole, the farmers’ response to the workshop was very positive,” says Dr Mlonyeni. “There is scope to improve the understanding of plant health management and the openness to use technology to do so was well received.”

Through this fact-finding workshop, researchers also identified a need to provide quality training for optimum technology adoption; network connectivity was also recognised as a challenge. “The training for this pilot set of smallholder farmers will take place in June this year,” says Dr Mlonyeni. “This will include improving their skills in downloading apps, attachments, sending emails and using a USB. We will then provide them with knowledge and training on pest and pathogen diagnostics.”

In addition, the farmers will be shown how to use ICT tools. “This includes showing them how to share video graphics, send a sample to the clinic and use the Diagnostic Clinic app, from registering users to tracking samples until the issuing of the final diagnostic report. The training will also include practical illustrations on how to identify sick plants, collect samples and package them to be couriered to FABI.”

Alliances with various stakeholders, from industry and business partners to NGOs and governmental departments, have been formed in order to realise this initiative, which FABI is also planning to roll out to a group of smallholder farmers in the Eastern Cape. “Partnerships with Grain SA, Cropwatch Africa and Social Coding SA have been forged to provide specialist plant health services and training to these farmers,” says Dr Mlonyeni. “Other stakeholders that have provided a funding base include the Department of Science and Innovation, UNICEF and Future Africa.” A key stakeholder that is yet to become involved is the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development through their extension officers, he adds.

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