Geospatial technology enables provision of timely and detailed fieldand crop-specific information throughout the growing season to farmers in Africa via mobiles and other smart ICT channels
Climate change, water scarcity and food security are becoming increasingly important topics for the growing population of Africa. Due to a general lack of water resources and/or development in the semi-arid and arid zones, water is generally the limiting factor for agricultural production. Smart and affordable technologies need to be adapted to customise farm management for farmers with limited water resources. The general challenge is to produce more food with less water while improving the income and livelihoods of millions of farmers.
Against this backdrop, Netherlandsbased e-LEAF has developed and tested innovative technology and application services to supply farmers in Africa with information on their crops via mobile phones and other smart ICT modes. This way, the information access barrier in rural Africa can be lowered and informed decision making by smallholder farmer is enabled regarding the management of their land and water resources, and farmers’ negotiation capacity with water- and farm-related service providers enhanced. Rather than providing general statements on crop growth, these applications provide timely and detailed field– and crop-specific information throughout the growing season, which supports the farmers in improving their crop production and their economic returns/income.
eLEAF supplies reliable, quantitative data on water and vegetation on any land surface to support sustainable water use, increase food production, and protect environmental systems.
For the implementation of the Smart ICT project, four pilot areas located in West-Noubaria (Egypt), the Arata Chufa irrigation scheme in Oromiya (Ethiopia), the spate irrigation area of the Gash Delta (Sudan) and Office du Niger (Mali) were selected. Information delivery to the farmers is based on the conclusions of a user need assessment which identified the preferred and most effective methods of communication and desired type of information to be received by the small African farmers.
FieldLook platform and irrigation planner
The eLEAF data gives information about the status of vegetation (crop-specific) at the land surface every week. During the pilot period, farmers get free access to information that is computed for their own fields. They need to subscribe to this service by specifying the digital boundaries of their fields. Local partners/extensions officers are enhanced to collect the relevant information from farmers and enter this in the system. As many farmers in the pilot areas do not have direct access to the Internet, the local partner plays an important role in supporting the individual farmers to access and interpret the data.
The eLEAF FieldLook website contains an Irrigation Planner application, in which farmers can enter their irrigation amounts on the day of irrigation. Subsequently, a soil water balance model is run using weather forecast data. This provides the farmers with tailormade advice on when they will have to irrigate next to prevent crop water stress and avoid wasting water at the same time.
Within each pilot area, 60 pilot farmers have received a free mobile phone and instructions on how to use these devices and applications. These farmers are subscribed to the Smart ICT SMS service, which was identified as the most direct way to get information to the farmers. The content of the messages is based on the FieldLook and Irrigation Planner information, but converted into simple text messages to farmers related to irrigation and fertilisation of crops. The messages tell farmers in the local language about crop water needs, crop water stress, crop nutrient status, biomass production and flood forecasts for spate irrigation.
The service delivers weekly information on crop growth and water use efficiency indicating whether those parameters are (a) below average, (b) average and (c) above average when compared to neighbouring fields. This allows farmers to assess the performance of their fields and crops in relation to the fields of their colleagues. In addition, the system is highly interactive and provides on-demand information, rather than forcing the messages upon the farmers. Farmers can request irrigation advice from the Irrigation Planner by SMS while in the field, and can feed the Irrigation Planner with data on their irrigated amount to receive updated advice.
The feedback from the farmers and local partners (agricultural staff) in the pilot areas in the four African countries is encouraging, which is a clear indication that there is a great potential for continuing the agricultural advisory services in the current pilot areas and in other African countries. During the pilot, farmers have become acquainted with eLEAF-enabled applications and services and local partners have learned to interpret the data, translate it into improved farm management practices, which has shown to have positive impact on crop production and efficiency of water use.
As eLEAF data can provide valuable insights in a wide variety of crop specific information and is not restricted by political borders, it is a suitable basis for developing mobile agricultural applications throughout Africa.