Decision support tools remove the guess work from agronomic innovation

Decision support tools remove the guesswork from agronomic innovation

Decision-support tools being piloted in Nigeria and Tanzania can help cassava growers decide if agronomic recommendations will be profitable under their local conditions.  

Crop yields in Africa are often limited because farmers and extension agents lack reliable agronomic recommendations that are tailored for their local conditions. For example, judging the most effective quantity of fertilizer depends on knowing fertilizer and labor costs, expected weather, soil type, cropping history and past soil management. Crops in different locations may respond to fertilizer in different ways. Or, the market may reward farmers with high crop prices in one area, but not in another. As a result, farmers may not be able to judge if an investment is worthwhile before trying it. 

Since 2016, the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative (ACAI), a project managed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in partnership with national and international research institutes, universities, development organizations and the private sector, has developed tools to support cassava growers and extension agents in Nigeria and Tanzania to make decisions by tailoring investments in agronomic practices to farmers’ local conditions, maximizing profits.  

The project worked on cases involving: 

  • recommendations for cassava planting density and tillage,  
  • intercropping cassava with maize or sweetpotato, 
  • agronomic interventions to increase the starch content of cassava roots,  
  • scheduled planting and harvesting to sustain supply to the cassava processing industry, 
  • recommendations on best blends of NPK fertilizers for the fertilizer industry, 
  • site-specific fertilizer recommendations for commercial cassava growers. 

For each case, researchers began by reviewing literature on promising recommendations. Next, they conducted surveys of thousands of fields and households to learn about the current practices, major limitations in cassava cultivation, and the role of cassava within the households’ food and cash generation strategies.  

This was followed by hundreds of on-farm agronomic trials of the proposed agronomic recommendations, including 600 fertilizer response trials in 2017. The large sample sizes for the surveys and trials created robust datasets. The analysis of these trials showed that the profitability of many innovations, such as changing the crop’s planting date or density, adding fertilizer or ridging of the soil, depends on the field’s location and environment, as well as past crop and soil management. Researchers then developed new decision-making tools, like mobile apps, to help farmers and extension agents decide whether an innovation is profitable under their local conditions.  

The farmer or extension agent enters data such as the area of the field, cassava variety, the date of planting, fertilizer and labor costs, expected harvest price and date of harvest. The app infers soil and weather information from the GPS location and uses the input data to calculate the expected profit from using a new practice, such as a higher rate of fertilizer, or an alternative date of planting or harvesting. It provides information on the increase in net revenue, and the risk associated with the innovation to help the user decide if the innovation will be profitable. 

During 2019-2020, the tools will be scaled through a partnership with development actors involved in the cassava value chain in Nigeria and Tanzania. The expected yield and income gains of the improved agronomic recommendations should benefit about 100,000 farming families, with a total benefit of over USD16 million.  

Currently, the tools are in their first version, and being validated in a pilot program involving over 1,000 cassava growers in both countries. “One of the biggest challenges has been getting the key players to trust the technology, participate in the exercises and apply ACAI methods. As the project moves forward, we are working to change mindsets by encouraging active participation, practical demonstration, versatile feedback mechanisms and real-time knowledge and information sharing,” noted Stefan Hauser, systems agronomist at IITA.

In the future, farmers and extension agents will have user-friendly apps on smartphones, tablets or laptops that can help to decide if a given innovation is right for each farmer. These decision support tools will also help farmers to make management decisions efficiently over large geographical areas. When these decision support tools are mature, they should improve the profits earned by millions of African farmers, make extension work easier and more rewarding, while doubling the yields of cassava on the continent.

Photo: Researchers have developed decision-making tools that help farmers and extension agents decide whether agronomic recommendations will be profitable under their local conditions. Credit: R.Enese/ACAI