Author Archives: RTB

Applying the science of scaling

A new RTB initiative is applying the science of scaling to accelerate promising agricultural technologies, showing researchers how to reach more farmers, much sooner.

Scaling up agricultural innovations is one of the biggest challenges facing research and development organizations. Projects have often tried to scale technologies at the end of the intervention, in an ad hoc way such as by giving flyers to farmers, or briefs to policy makers. However, the successful scaling of a new technology depends largely on the enabling environment and needs to be considered from the outset.

The Scaling Readiness Approach treats innovation as a flexible package of technological, organizational and institutional components that may include crop varieties, equipment, management practices, legislation and marketing. An innovation may be ready in a technical sense, for example a new crop variety may thrive in the local environment, but if farmers lack funds to buy seed or if the policy environment discourages the uptake of new varieties, it may not be adopted. This approach assesses the potential of technologies and other innovations supported by RTB to be used at scale, and guides researchers and other stakeholders in implementing these innovations in practical contexts.

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling

Gender mainstreaming in value chain development triggers women’s empowerment in Uganda

A gender focus introduced in value chain development in Uganda has allowed women and men to start new seed businesses, to train other farmers, and to share planting material of varieties that consumers want.

Banana is a major staple in Uganda. However, traders and other value chain actors face post-harvest loses that limit their incomes. The ‘Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their post-harvest losses’ (RTB-ENDURE) project implemented the Participatory Market Chain Approach (PMCA) with a gender lens to address this concern.

Jointly facilitated by Bioversity International and the International Potato Center (CIP), the PMCA began with a gendered value chain study to identify the needs of banana value chain actors and new market opportunities specifically considering post-harvest losses. This identified the short shelf-life of most cooking banana cultivars and the mismatch between the varieties grown by farmers and those demanded by consumers. Other challenges included low production of the market-preferred varieties due to a lack of access to clean and affordable planting materials, and limited linkages between farmers and major market outlets. Male and female value chain actors also highlighted these challenges in the first stakeholders’ meeting held as part of the PMCA.

Continue reading the story in the RTB 2017 Annual Report: From science to scaling. 

From science to scaling: 2017 Annual Report

We are pleased to share the 2017 Annual Report from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, entitled ‘From science to scaling’. We invite you the explore the report as an interactive website where you can also download the PDF.

2017 was a notable year for our program. It marked the start-up of Phase II, where we significantly accelerated the scaling of the diverse set of innovations developed since the program’s inception in 2012. This is supported by our Flagship Project 5, which is facilitating the design and implementation of strategies for scaling innovations to achieve the greatest possible impact.

One of the mechanisms created for this is the RTB Scaling Fund, which in 2017 awarded its first grants to three teams of scientist working on bringing to scale: 1) an approach, known as single diseased-stem removal, for controlling the disease banana Xanthomonas wilt; 2) a method for conserving sweetpotato roots to produce planting material, known as Triple S; and 3) a technology for turning cassava peels into an ingredient of animal feed.

Likewise, we have seen the impact that the breeding of improved root, tuber and banana varieties – a core part of our program since its onset – has had through RTB-supported adoption studies. The report explores the adoption of improved potato and cassava varieties.

In 2017, we launched the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative. The Initiative brought together plant and animal breeders and social scientists to develop a strategy for gender-responsive breeding with supporting methods, tools and practices. This includes a practical guide to help plant and animal breeding programs become more gender-responsive.

Learn more about our achievements and successes in 2017 in the report.

Read the 2017 Annual Report

Scientists’ breakthrough brings hope for banana resistance breeding to deadly bacterial wilt disease

A team, led by scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), have announced a breakthrough in the search for banana varieties that are resistant to the lethal bacterial banana wilt disease. This debunks the notion that all banana varieties are susceptible to the disease and opens the possibility of breeding resistant varieties.  

The disease, which causes premature ripening and rotting of the fruits, wilting, and eventually death of the plant, has drastically affected the highland cooking banana production in East and Central Africa (ECA) and the food and income of millions of farmers.

Symptom development for representative accessions for different reaction types at 35 days postinoculation. The varieties are Musa balbisiana (resistant), Pelipita (tolerant), Ilayi Red (moderately susceptible) and Pitu (highly susceptible).

Until now, the scientific world believed that all banana varieties in the region, except for a wild-seeded banana called Musa balbisiana, were susceptible to the disease, which originated from Ethiopia and has now invaded all banana growing areas in the highlands of eastern and central Africa.

The discovery by the team led by Prof Rony Swennen, Head of banana breeding; Dr George Mahuku, Senior Plant Pathologist for Eastern, Southern and Central Africa; and Dr Valentine Nakato, Plant Pathologist, was reported in the Plant Pathology (https://doi.org/10.1111/ppa.12945) journal.

The disease is caused by Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum bacteria and its symptoms include yellowing and wilting of leaves, a cream to pale yellow bacteria-laden oozing when the plant is cut, shriveling of the male bud, premature ripening, internal discoloration of fruits, and finally death of infected plants. Transmission is fast and mainly through contaminated tools, insect vectors, and planting material. Therefore, major investments by national programs, donors, and scientists have been geared towards rigorous monitoring of banana fields, removal of diseased plants, and decontaminating farm tools.

“This discovery is very important for the millions of smallholder banana farmers in the region as one of the most effective ways to control any disease is by developing resistant varieties,” says Nakato, based in IITA, Uganda.

Bananas are an indispensable part of life in the region providing up to one-fifth of the total calorie consumption per capita. The average daily per capita energy from banana consumption in ECA is 147 kcal: 15 times the global average and six times the African average. The region has over 50% of its permanent cropped area under banana; this is around half of the total area under banana cultivation across Africa. ECA countries (Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) produce annually 21 million tons of banana with a value of USD4.3 billion.

The team systematically screened the entire banana collection at IITA, Uganda, and identified 13 other sources of resistance next to M. balbisiana.  Most importantly, Nakato identified several diploids derived from Musa acuminata—another wild banana—and which are already part of the existing highland breeding program of IITA and NARO (National Agricultural Research Organisation, Uganda).

“The findings of this study are very significant for the banana breeding community and we will redouble our efforts in developing banana varieties with resistance to the disease,” says Swennen.

IITA and NARO have developed superior high-yielding matoke hybrids dubbed NARITA and now those NARITA, which were developed with the resistant banana varieties, will be screened for bacterial wilt resistance and become part of future breeding schemes to develop bacterial wilt resistant matoke varieties.

Other partners in the study included the University of Pretoria, South Africa and Centre of the Region Haná for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research, Institute of Experimental Botany, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. This research was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. 

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IITA Media contacts
Katherine Lopez, IITA Head of Communication, k.lopez@cgiar.org
Catherine Njuguna, IITA Corporate Communication Officer, Eastern Africa, c.njuguna@cgiar.org

Southeast Asia responds to industry-threatening cassava mosaic disease

Government representatives, development partners and cassava researchers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam gather this week to devise a regional plan to contain the potentially devastating Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) in Southeast Asia. They convene from September 18-20 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Researchers from Zhejiang University and Holley Group Co. in China first reported CMD in northeast Cambodia in 2015 in the journal Plant Disease. Since then, authorities have reported CMD in seven provinces in Cambodia and ten provinces in Vietnam.

Previously, CMD was only found in India and Africa, where it was identified a century ago. CMD in sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for a 15-24 percent loss in annual yields, resulting in estimated losses of 12-23 million tons of cassava worth US$1.2-2.3 billion.

CMD in Southeast Asia could be devastating to the 55 million-ton cassava industry. The disease threatens the food security and livelihoods of several million subsistence-oriented households and smallholder producers. As a threat to global value chains, CMD in the region could put billions of dollars of investments at risk.

“CMD could be potentially disastrous for Southeast Asia,” said Dr. Claude Fauquet, the Adjunct Director of Global Cassava Partnerships for the 21st Century. “The international cassava community is willing to contribute to an effective response through numerous measures, including by providing CMD-resistant plant material that are suitable for the region.”

Experts agree that a coordinated, region-wide response is required to respond to the CMD breakout.

Together with the global research community, researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s (CIAT) cassava program have identified a number of short-term actions to contain CMD’s spread. These include promoting the propagation and trade of virus-free stakes, testing CMD-resistant cassava varieties, and enabling cassava merchants and farmers to trade only virus-free planting materials, said CIAT cassava program lead Dr. Luis Augusto Becerra.

The third most produced crop in Southeast Asia after sugarcane and rice, cassava is a key ingredient in biofuel, animal feed, and starch, from which products including paper, textiles, alcohol, sweeteners and others are made.

Demand for cassava-based products is increasing as incomes in Asia rise and consumption patterns change. New global markets are developing with growing demand for ‘clean label’ and differentiated products such as gluten-free or GMO-free.

“Cassava starch (or tapioca) has always had superior functional properties in many applications sought after by food processors and manufacturers, with new breeding efforts enhancing these characteristics adding to the competitiveness of cassava in the starch market,” said Dr. Jonathan Newby, an agricultural economist at CIAT. “However, farm-level productivity remains critical to ensure competitiveness in the market.”

While the market outlook for cassava will depend on how quickly the disease is brought under control, there are already serious short-term livelihood impacts.

“Cassava has many great characteristics in terms of smallholder inclusion,” Newby said. “However, the poorest and most vulnerable households are highly exposed to the impacts of this disease. Crop failures associated with CMD will have deep and long-lasting impacts on many livelihoods in the region.”

CMD is caused by a member of the Geminiviridae virus family and spreads through the use of stakes from infected cassava mother plants. It is also transmitted by the whitefly Bemisia tabaci.

When infected, cassava plants can display stunted growth and mosaic patterns on deformed, twisted, and undersized leaves. Depending on a variety of factors, CMD-afflicted plants produce fewer or no roots. Infection through cuttings is more damaging than infection through whiteflies.

Large volumes of cassava stakes are traded across several hundred kilometers to meet farmer demand, according to a CIAT study of seed systems in cassava-growing regions of Cambodia and Vietnam.

CMD in Southeast Asia is caused by the Sri Lankan cassava mosaic virus (SLCMV) found in Sri Lanka and India. However, experts are not clear at this time as to where the disease in Southeast Asia originated from, nor as to its current real extent in the Southeast Asia region.

“Globalized commerce has made it easier for pathogens to transcend national boundaries,” said Dr. Wilmer Cuellar, lead virologist at CIAT. “Often, what happens is that before officials can verify the presence of a disease or pest, it has spread so wide across the country and threatens to cross borders.”

For more information, contact CIAT Communications: Madelline Romero, m.romero@cgiar.org, and Julio Mario Fernandez, j.m.fernadez@cgiar.org. Expert interviews may be facilitated upon request.

Potato minituber boom in sub-Saharan Africa: tenfold increase in ten years

In less than a decade, potato minituber production increased ten-fold in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa according to a recent study by the International Potato Center (CIP). Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have increased their production of Early Generation Seed from 483,000 to 4,921,000 minitubers thanks to country-level investment in seed potato systems to boost the production of high-quality seed. Actual production, however, remains far below the capacity in place.

“Currently 95 percent of potato farmers in Africa source their seed from informal seed systems, putting their productive capacity at a major disadvantage,” says Dieudonné Harahagazwe, one of the authors of the paper. “As the starter material for onward field multiplication to bulk seed, increasing production in Early Generation Seed has the potential to help break the seed bottleneck and put quality materials into farmers’ hands. Studies such as these help us understand where organizations should invest efforts and resources based on the local context and infrastructure,” he adds.

Potato minitubers being produced in the aeroponic unit of ADC Seed Potato Complex in Molo, Kenya. Photo: D. Harahagazwe

Early Generation Seed key to bolstering potato productivity

Potato is increasingly becoming one of the top food crops in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of production, regional trade, and consumption. However, potato growers (mainly smallholder farmers) still face many challenges that cause huge yield gaps with direct impact on their livelihoods and income. The countries featured in the study have invested in Early Generation Seed production, the material that seed multipliers use to produce more seed, making it a critical component in developing a healthy seed system to help farmers close the yield gap and meet their full productive potential.

Early Generation Seed is defined as the planting material produced either in tissue culture laboratories or under protective structures, such as screenhouses or greenhouses, by specialized entities. Seed multipliers use Early Generation Seed to produce certified or quality declared seed for farmer use in the lead up to the planting season. Early Generation seed can be produced in numerous ways, including as in vitro plantlets through Rapid Multiplication Techniques such as micropropagation, cuttings produced from mother plants, or minitubers produced by hydroponics or aeroponics, or through the  conventional multiplication technique of growing in vitro plantlets in a substrate made of soil, sand and peat, or compost.

“This CIP study aimed at assessing and documenting the current situation in Rapid Multiplication Techniques in the region,” says Jorge Andrade-Piedra, a CIP scientist specializing in plant pathology. “They are the first step to producing high-quality seed and are frequently reported as a bottleneck in potato seed systems.”

Schematic representation of formal seed potato supply schemes in SSA. Dashed lines mean that the system is still at experimental stage or used to a lesser extent.

CIP conducted research on the state of Rapid Multiplication Techniques of Early Generation Seed through a series of face-to-face interviews, personal observations and data, and phone calls that took place from November and December 2017. The survey included questions grouped in the following clusters: What is being done? How is it being done? And, what is the performance? The study provides insights on the main schemes actors, production capacity, and challenges to produce Early Generation Seed potato in sub-Saharan Africa.

“By taking a deep dive into each of the specific Rapid Multiplication Techniques and conventional techniques in location-specific contexts we are able to better understand the limitations, benefits, and required resources that each technology demands,” adds Andrade-Piedra.

Significant progress, significant room for continued growth

Over half a million in vitro plantlets could be grown under protective structures for minituber production in the seven study countries, and collectively greater than 7.5 million minitubers can be produced in a single season. Despite this potential, the total number of minitubers produced in 2017 represented only 65% of minitubers that could be produced in a single season of 3–6 months.

Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania are the major producers of minitubers, all experiencing  growth in production from 2008 to 2013. The conventional technique is the most used technique for producing minitubers: it accounts for 49% of the total production capacity, followed by hydroponics (30%), and aeroponics (21%).

Minituber production over time in seven SSA countries. Graph adapted from Demo et al., (2015). 2017 data were provided by respondents.

Techniques used to produce minitubers vary widely in terms of yields and challenges. Yield obtained with the conventional technique is 8-12 minitubers per plant, whereas the same plant is likely to produce 37-47 minitubers in aeroponics, and 9-13 minitubers in hydroponics. However, aeroponics is much costlier and riskier (e.g. the need for continuous electricity) and requires more skills than the conventional technique and hydroponics, which are more resilient with less upfront and running costs.

However, technologies are not the main challenge. “The problem is not to produce Early Generation Seed potato at large scale but how to sell our produce and sustain the business,” says Gabriel Bizimungu, Managing Director of Horizon SOPYRWA, a private seed company operating in Rwanda. In addition to providing a snapshot of the current situation the study also provides case-specific suggestions on how to improve the efficiency of Early Generation Seed production.

“Lack of access to quality seed severely hampers the productive potential of potato farmers,” says Monica Parker, a scientist at CIP and a contributing author of the study. “On average farmers using recycled seed and seed of unknown sources are yielding between 6-10 tonnes per hectare rather than the 20-25 tonnes per hectare they could achieve under standard conditions. By addressing barriers to success such as ramping up seed multipliers access to Early Generation Seed we can help to alleviate seed bottlenecks and be on our way to developing well-functioning seed systems that get quality seed into the hands of farmers who need it.”

This research was undertaken as part of, and funded by, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas and the International Potato Center supported by CGIAR Trust Fund contributors.

Getting Kenya’s seed potato production right

Isaiah Kemei is one of the most progressive seed potato multipliers in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County. Before becoming a seed potato multiplier in 2016, Isaiah had been planting potatoes for sale at the local markets for more than seven years. “At that time I used to experience high disease incidence, especially bacterial wilt, in my potato fields and my yields were very low, less than 10 t/ha,” he said.

Isaiah at his seed potato field in January 2012. Photo: CIP

Under the ongoing Feed the Future-funded Kenya Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVCD) project, Isaiah has learned the art of producing quality seed potato. In 2016, he attended a two-day training on seed potato production facilitated by the AVCD project, potato value chain,  in collaboration with the Uasin Gishu County Government.  AVCD’s potato value chain component is led by the International Potato Center (CIP).

Thereafter, Isaiah bought his first lot of 0.5 tonnes of certified seed during the 2016 long rains (March to May). He has since expanded his seed potato production by committing more land. He has also constructed a diffused light store (DLS) with a one tonne capacity. DLSs make use of indirect natural light and good ventilation to control excessive sprout growth and associated storage loss in potatoes.

Selecting the right potato variety

Although Isaiah’s first certified seed lot were of Kenya Mpya potato variety, he has since strategized by acquiring Shangi, a variety popular with farmers in his county. During the 2016 short rains (October to December), Isaiah was one of three seed multipliers who pioneered use of rooted cuttings in the county for production of elite early generation seed of Shangi and Unica varieties.  Currently, he has more than one acre of Unica, a climate smart variety with heat and drought tolerance traits, high yielding and pest and disease resistance characteristics.

According to Joseph Waiyeki, the ward agricultural officer of Ainabkoi/Olare ward, farmers in his area have benefited much from Isaiah’s farm who produces quality seed potato of their preferred variety. “Isaiah is a good potato entrepreneur who embraces technologies including new varieties. Because of this, the county has constructed a model ambient cold storage facility on his farm,” said Joseph.

“I bought seed from Isaiah in October 2017 and I am impressed by the uniform crop and fairly good yields despite very low rainfall received during the October to December rainy season. Initially, I thought the cost of Isaiah’s seed was very high but now I am glad I bought the quality seed,” said Abraham Choge.

Abraham Choge at his potato field, January 2018

This is in contrast to James Tuwei who wanted to buy seed from Isaiah but changed his mind when he was told the unit price per 50kg bag (Kes 2,000, approx. USD20). He opted to buy tubers from the market at a price of Kes 1,000 (USD10) for a 70-kg bag. When James met Isaiah recently, he regretted that he didn’t buy the quality seed from him. “Now I know cheap is expensive especially for seed potato. My field was totally destroyed by tuber borne diseases,” said James Tuwei.

Certainly, the biggest challenge to potato production is limited access to quality seed and Isaiah is helping solve this problem in his ward. “I received many calls from farmers looking for more seed after seeing the performance of seed they bought earlier or from their neighbors who bought my seed.  So getting the seed production right remains my moto,” Isaiah concluded.

From 5 -7 July, 2017, Isaiah was one of 17 decentralized seed multipliers who participated in a three-day tour to learn practices and requirements for production of certified seed. His ultimate goal is to invest in an irrigation system so that he can maximize his returns and mitigate moisture stress during low rainfall seasons.

This research was undertaken as part of Flagship Project 2 on ‘Adapted productive varieties and quality seed’ of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas

Blog written by Dinah Borus of the International Potato Center, and originally published on the Feed the Future website

Farmer-to-farmer in the internet age: smartphone extension videos reach thousands in Southeast Asia

As reported by Google, Southeast Asia has the fastest growing internet user base of any region on earth. With a monthly mobile internet connection often costing $US 2-3, an estimated 3.8 million new connections are added every month, and the region is expected to reach a staggering 480 million users by 2020. As internet continues to penetrate daily life and business, recent video extension work by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) under the rubric of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) looked to harness this power to take aim at an RTB crop with high demand for extension information: cassava.

Farmers demonstrate the planting of a peanut intercrop during the filming of the ‘Growing cassava on sloping land’ educational video in Yen Bai, Northern Vietnam. Photo by Paul Van Mele.

In Southeast Asia the smartphone is king, accounting for over 90% of internet connections. For rural people, mobile devices are ideal links to the wider world: portable, inexpensive, easy to charge and maintain, and intuitive to use. Farmers are no exception, increasingly using smartphones to search for information about crops and their markets, to share experiences and observations, and to seek advice on management issues. Here CGIAR’s long history of production and use of audio-visual knowledge products for farmer extension is poised to enter a new era, as internet use trends in Southeast Asia are creating truly unparalleled opportunities for impact.

In a previous blog from 2016, CIAT-Asia announced the launch of two farmer-to-farmer videos for cassava (Grass strips against soil erosion and Growing cassava on sloping land). Dubbed in English, French, Lao, Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese, these educational videos encourage best practices for sustainable cassava cultivation, including planting, fertilizer use, and the establishment and maintenance of grass strips for erosion control. Produced with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), 500 DVDs were prepared for distribution. In addition, the videos were hosted on YouTube and Access Agriculture, but with no promotional projects, they were left to spread organically. Post-release, both videos were also dubbed by Access Agriculture into Spanish, while Grass strips against soil erosion has additionally been translated into Quechua, Aymara, and Arabic for use in similar cassava production environments. Two years after their release, it is time to ask: how did they do?

To find out, we made use of analytics services built in to video streaming services, which keep logs of the country of origin, watch time, device type, and other details for each view of a video. Overall, the two videos had been viewed a combined 44,072 times by May 2018, representing over 3,816 hours of watch time. Growing cassava on sloping land has been most popular, accounting for 38,000 views, making it the most viewed video on CIAT’s YouTube channel. This video was the first version to go online, benefited from early publicity through a launch by CIAT at FAO’s World Food Day celebration in Lao Cai, Vietnam, and was featured in CGIAR blogs, giving it a boost on social media.

This is a good chunk of views, where were they coming from? To visualize, we created an interactive map for the global viewership of Growing cassava on sloping land.
Mouse over each country to see the number of views as of May 2018. 

Southeast Asia had a combined 9809 views, over 5000 of which were in the Philippines, and an additional 2794 in India. Nigeria, the world’s largest producer of cassava, had 1246 views, while East Africa’s Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania production area had a combined 961 views. All of these are English-speaking countries with high populations.

There were also surprises – Saudi Arabia and UAE each had over 1000 views, and the tiny Caribbean cassava producing nation of Trinidad and Tobago viewed the video 1197 times. Part of what makes extension through public online video platforms so interesting is these ‘unintentional’ effects. Interest in cassava production in the Middle East continues to rise with the search for crops adapted to arid conditions, while Trinidad & Tobago’s increasingly intensified cassava producers seem to have found valuable information in the Asian production models described in the video.

In addition to farmers, getting the attention of program staff and development professionals is important for increasing impact through use in future projects. Growing cassava on sloping land was viewed 6587 times in the USA, 1010 times in Canada, 1428 times in the UK, and 808 times in Australia.

To learn a little more about viewers’ behavior, we broke things down further by looking in-depth at a few key statistics from the English language YouTube version of the video.

For a 15 minute video, these average view times are substantial, considering accidental clicks and rewatches, where users skip through to find a key detail they’ve missed or forgotten from their first viewing. Users who watched the video on a large screen, like a computer or TV (game consoles are included – modern consoles can stream YouTube/internet to a TV), had longer average watch times, while tablet and mobile phone users watched for less time, but were responsible for most liking or sharing of the video on social media.

Views in other languages were low compared to English or French, in part due to larger speaking populations of the latter, but also to the inherent difficulties of using YouTube in languages like Lao or Khmer. This can make finding videos in the first place more challenging. As all language versions of the videos are available for download on Access Agriculture, additional work by research & extension communities could drastically increase viewership through working with in-country partners. We also made no attempt to estimate views from the 500 DVDs distributed as part of the SDC initiative. However, earlier research in Bangladesh indicated that each DVD with farmer training videos left in a community was watched by on average 70 people; assuming a similar rate this would have generated an additional 35,000 views.

In many ways increasing internet penetration democratizes access to information. Analytics help us to understand demand for this type of knowledge product, and give us a concept of the geography and viewing behavior of users. This is critical for improving outreach and further honing future products. These data are not perfect; technologies like VPNs which mask the true location of the viewer are common in countries where internet use is closely monitored or restricted, and can muddle the results. It is also difficult to draw inferences about changes in behavior without follow-up research – meaning that we can confidently speak about raising awareness, but less so about the impacts of this awareness on farmer actions. Despite these challenges, insights generated by these metrics are key to increasing impact moving forward. Based on viewer behavior, for instance, the Access Agriculture video platform has now been made fully mobile enabled, and all videos have been made downloadable in file formats suitable for offline viewing and sharing on mobile devices.

Blog contributed by Erik Delaquis of CIAT and Paul Van Mele of AgroInsight/Access Agriculture. With special thanks for technical support from Kien Tri Nguyen.

African farmers get new help against cassava diseases: Nuru, their artificially intelligent assistant

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Pennsylvania State University, USA, have collaborated to develop and launch Nuru, an Artificially Intelligent Assistant. Nuru (Swahili for light) uses machine learning to accurately recognize leaves damaged by two important viral diseases of cassava (Cassava Mosaic Disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease) as well as damage by red and green mites.

Viral diseases are a major problem in cassava production in Africa and reduce the yields that farmers can achieve.

“It’s hard for farmers to get information about their cassava crops, and particularly difficult to get identifications for virus diseases. Nuru can help to overcome both of these challenges as both information about cassava diseases and the capability to diagnose them can be accessed by any farmer or extension officer with a smartphone,” said James Legg, IITA plant health specialist who leads the research on cassava diseases in IITA.

The mobile app ‘Nuru’ can be used by farmers to diagnose crop disease in the field. Photo: IITA

Nuru uses a convolutional neural network to analyze visual imagery and runs inside a standard Android phone offline. The tool is available in PlantVillage in the Google Play Store. It is a free app built at Penn State with support from the 2017 CGIAR Inspire Challenge of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

The app can also diagnose the damage of the devastating invasive caterpillar pest–fall armyworm (FAW) on maize which is helpful as farmers often grow maize and cassava together.

She can speak Swahili, French, English and Twi and is learning new languages all the time. Nuru will also help farmers to scout their fields to work out how many plants are affected. She will automatically calculate the incidence of cassava diseases in the fields visited.

In addition, farmers can upload images of any crops to the cloud where a more powerful network works alongside humans to provide a rapid diagnosis.

The data collected will be aggregated from across the African continent into a database to better understand the epidemiology of cassava virus diseases. This will greatly help decision-makers to target resources more effectively.

Cassava farmer, Mr. Khalifa Omari Nkrumah, of Mkurangra district, Tanzania inspects his cassava plants for symptoms of disease. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

Although Nuru’s cassava AI has been developed with IITA in Africa, collaboration with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) will allow it to be adapted to monitoring the rapidly spreading pandemic of CMD in Southeast Asia. IITA, CIAT and other CGIAR centers work together under the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Nuru works offline, which is important where connection to the internet is not possible. When the user is connected to wifi the information flows into the dashboard platforms. Nuru also offers advice offline in the field and provides a way for farmers to connect, chat and share advice so that they can collectively find solutions to some of their most damaging pest and disease problems.

“An important feature is that it is offline–the farmer can use it as much as they want to examine their field for damage. Nuru is an extension officer that is always there for farmers, in their fields.”  said David Hughes, a professor of Entomology and Biology at Penn State, which led the development of the app together with IITA.

Helping farmers and decision-makers take appropriate action

Once farmers and workers check their crops for infections and upload the required data, Nuru gives advice so that the farmers can take action to manage the situation. Work by IITA has shown the importance of phytosanitaton measures where farmers use recommended practices such as planting virus-free material and resistant varieties.

Data will be validated by Africa-based focal points and transferred to a global web-based platform. It will then be analyzed to give a real-time overview of the situation with maps of cassava infection and measures that were most effective in reducing the losses that farmers experience.

The mapping is especially important to track the spread of Cassava Brown Streak which is considered a major threat to cassava production in West Africa.

Triple S method helps sweetpotato farmers plant and harvest earlier

Orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) is an impressive crop, able to grow on marginal lands and produce nutritious roots within three months from planting. However, farmers plant vine cuttings rather than seeds, and getting enough vines to plant at the beginning of the rainy season can be a challenge for smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This is especially true in areas with long dry seasons, and it is one of the challenges of growing sweetpotato that will likely grow as climate change advances.

Researchers at the International Potato Center (CIP) are consequently promoting a practice that allows farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to produce their own vines in time for the planting season. It consists of storing sweetpotato roots in dry sand following the harvest, planting them in seedbeds 6-8 weeks before the rainy season, and watering them to produce enough vines to plant when the rains begin. Known as Triple S – for storage in sand and sprouting – this technology can result in earlier harvests, providing food and income at a time that is commonly known as “the hunger season.”

Obtaining sweetpotato vines to plant when seasonal rains being is a major challenge for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo: S.Quinn/CIP

Triple S was largely developed by CIP researcher Sam Namanda, who improved upon farmer practices in Tanzania and Uganda, where he did his PhD dissertation research. He now promotes Triple S in Uganda, where it is being adopted by everyone from subsistence farmers to vine multipliers.

“With Triple S, farmers are able to plant earlier, harvest earlier, and get better yields,” Namanda said. He explained that while Triple S is enabling farmers in Uganda’s dry northern regions to grow sweetpotato, whereas in the country’s more humid central and southern regions, the ability to plant with the first rains allows farmers to produce two, and in some cases three harvests of OFSP roots per year.

Mihiretu Cherinet, who works for CIP in Ethiopia, explained that Triple S is facilitating OFSP production in extremely dry areas of his country, such as the Tigray Region, in northern Ethiopia, where the dry season can last as long as nine months. Sweetpotato wasn’t grown in in Tigray before CIP began promoting the crop there, and more than 60 percent of children under five in that region suffer vitamin A deficiency. The Regional Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resource Management and CIP are consequently getting the region’s farmers to grow vitamin A-rich OFSP varieties.

Triple S allows farmers to preserve sweetpotato roots in dry sand during the dry months and plant them before seasonal rains begin to produce vines for planting. Photo: E.Abidin/CIP

“Farmers in very dry areas are thankful for Triple S, because it not only allows them to grow OSFSP roots, they can also eat the leaves, which are the only green vegetable they can grow,” Cherinet said.

Margaret McEwan, a social scientist with CIP who works on seed systems, said that Triple S can play a key role in helping to establish the crop in new areas. She explained that a small sand basin, box or pit can that holds 40-50 small-to-medium-sized roots will produce sufficient vine cuttings to plant about 0.36 hectares, which can produce enough OFSP roots to meet the vitamin A requirements of a family. McEwan noted that that because Triple S allows farmers to plant earlier than they otherwise would, and produce more OFSP, it can extend the period during which they have fresh roots to eat, increasing their vitamin-A intake. She noted that it is also a climate-smart technology.

“As rainfall patterns become more unpredictable, farmers need to take advantage of whatever rain there is as quickly as possible,” she said.

Germame Garuma, Deputy Head of the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resource Management in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, mentioned during a workshop in Kenya that Triple S is already helping Ethiopian farmers deal with the effects of climate change.

“Global warming has seriously affected root crops due to prolonged drought,” Garuma said. “This technology will help us to solve the problem of planting material conservation during long drought.”

McEwan explained that CIP tested Triple S in nine sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries before it began working with partners to promote it to rural families on a larger scale. She added that in Malawi, CIP project manager Erna Abidin found that families were eating the roots they stored in sand before the planting season arrived, so she began promoting sand storage specifically to preserve OFSP roots for consumption, which can complement storage for planting material if farmers store enough roots. Abidin is currently promoting and evaluating both practices in Ghana and Burkina Faso.

With support from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) Scaling Fund, Abidin, Cherinet and other colleagues are working to take Triple S to scale, with an aim of reaching 45,000 farmers in Ethiopia and Ghana between 2018 and 2019. According to McEwan, that initiative combines training of trainers, video-based extension, media campaigns and other efforts to get farmers to adopt sand storage, best agricultural practices, careful selection of roots for vine production and other measures that will help them produce and consume more OFSP – a package she calls Triple S Plus. Videos on Triple S are available here, with Video 1 in the series below:

McEwan said that the initiative is designed to reach as many women as it does men, since women and children have the greatest need for the vitamin A that OFSP provides, yet women are all too often underrepresented in such interventions.  She explained that while the scaling initiative is expected to improve the vitamin-A consumption and incomes of thousands of families, its main goal is to test and improve adaptive strategies for scaling Triple S Plus. She added that the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI), through which CIP works with an array of partners in 17 SSA countries, could serve as a platform for scaling Triple S Plus across the region in the future.

“We are hoping to trigger farmer-to-famer dissemination through experience and testimony, but what is the critical mass for achieving this and ensuring a technically effective implementation of the technology? That’s what we want to test,” she said.

Read the original post on the International Potato Center website