New research provides recommendations for more effective disease management in potato and banana

The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) supports a number of young scientists to conduct innovative PhD research. In Ethiopia, Shiferaw Tafesse and Elias Damtew work with the International Potato Center (CIP) to study how and to what extent joint learning, disease monitoring and information sharing would contribute to collective management of bacterial wilt and late blight in potato. In Rwanda, working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Mariette McCampbell studies how mobile technology impacts decision making on control and prevention of Xanthomonas Wilt of Banana. The three are PhD candidates at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands where their projects are included as case studies in the university’s EVOCA project. EVOCA seeks to explore how digital tools, data crowd-sourcing and environmental monitoring can be used to address complex problems in four African countries. Initial results from the case studies were recently published in a special issue of NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences.

In this blogpost, the authors highlight the major takeaways from their research.

Xanthomonas Wilt of Banana (BXW): Can ICT and citizen science offer a solution to a recurrent issue?
Xanthomonas Wilt of Banana (BXW) is a persistent problem and affects millions of farmers in the African Great Lakes region. The diagnostics paper unravels BXW’s embeddedness in the agricultural system and builds on analysis of data from academic and grey literature and data from scoping studies in Rwanda and Burundi. Results show that BXW associated research and interventions most often focus on the biophysical and technological dimensions. Yet, challenges in the socio-cultural, economic, institutional, and political domains critically impact the ability of farmers and governments to control and prevent BXW outbreaks. The authors explore the relation between these challenges and the availability, accessibility and quality of data, information and knowledge about BXW.

Based on this they suggest the use of ICT and citizen science as favorable vehicles to address some of the challenges. For example, mobile phones may be leveraged to crowd-source data about BXW incidences, and send out timely, accurate, and actionable information to farmers and extensionists.  As such, using ICT could help improve disease management. Yet, the authors warn that digital innovations are not a panacea and should be seen as a promising addition to rather than a replacement for face-to-face interaction.

BXW affects the entire banana plant, from stem to fruit. Farmers often lack sufficient knowledge about disease symptoms such as withering of leaves, drying and premature ripening of fruits. Image: CIALCA

Bacterial wilt and late blight in potato in Ethiopia: A systems perspective of the problem
Potato bacterial wilt and late blight are major constraints for potato, which is one of the most important crops for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. The diseases pose complex problems with various technical and institutional features, involving multiple actors such as farmers, research institutes and local government, who each have different perceptions of the problem. Appreciating such complexity, the study adopts a systems thinking perspective to explore how each party understands the problem situation and its implication for collective management of the diseases. The analysis revealed that actors essentially overlooked key systemic problems in the management of bacterial wilt and late blight, which require coordinated and collective efforts to stop the spread between farms, or even regions. Lack of a preventive disease management culture, limited recognition of interdependencies, power inequalities, and top-down and linear approaches in information and knowledge sharing are identified as those key problems.

The researchers conclude that the best way forward is designing a disease management strategy that, on the one hand, prevents disease epidemics, and on the other hand, fosters learning, horizontal information sharing, and collective action among key actors in the system. Information sharing platforms, such as mobile phones and decision support systems, can play a role in catalyzing new forms of information sharing, broader learning, and collaboration.

Infected seed potatoes are among the main sources of inoculum for Bacterial wilt and Late blight. Symptom of Bacterial wilt (white ooze) are seen on famers’ stored seed potatoes. Image: Elias Assefa, WUR/CIP

Potato disease management: How does Ethiopian farmers’ knowledge inform their practices?
Building on findings of the systems level analysis, this paper examines farmers’ knowledge of bacterial wilt and late blight, analyses disease management practices, and assesses how knowledge affects those practices. The study sheds light on how limited knowledge about key disease features critically impacts farmers’ shaping of daily potato production practices. Generally, farmers have inadequate knowledge about the potato diseases and suitable management methods. As a result, farmer practices, such as sharing planting material and farm tools with their neighbors, contribute to disease spread rather than supporting effective management.

Based on these findings the authors recommended the use of a learning approach (e.g. disease spreading mechanisms and collective disease management methods) that integrates scientific and local knowledge about key disease aspects and can inform farmers’ practices.  

Preliminary multi-stakeholder analysis of the problem situation of potato bacterial wilt and late blight using RAAIS (Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Innovation system) toolkit. Image: Elias Assefa, WUR/CIP

Conclusion and way forward
The EVOCA project’s original central tenet is to leverage digital platforms to address complex problems in Africa. However, our research shows the importance to first holistically assess the problem that such a platform would need to address before moving into a design process. For example, the specific information and knowledge requirements across the different social and technological dimensions of the problem situation need to be identified.

At the moment, various forms of social experiments and empirical studies are designed to further explore the critical (types) of information and content that a successful platform needs to offer. This leads to design choices regarding – for example – the monitoring data that the platform collects, and facilities for both top-down and bottom-up information exchange.   

Blog contributed by Mariette McCampbell (IITA and WUR), Elias Damtew (CIP and WUR) and Shiferaw Tafesse (CIP and WUR).