By Vivian Agaba
James Walude, a small scale farmer hailing from Kamuli district is among the many cassava farmers who have had concerns of pests and diseases, especially cassava brown streak virus (CBSV) destroying their cassava crops.
The 52-year-old grows mainly cassava on his 2-acres piece of land, and says sometimes, his cassava crops would be attacked by cassava brown streak virus to the point that the yield losses were severe, and he could hardly get some cassava to sell after feeding his family. He also lacks the knowledge of what was eating up his plants, what kind of disease it was, and how to detect the virus made the situation worse.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), two major diseases affecting cassava production in Uganda are; the Uganda variant of the East African cassava mosaic virus (EACMV-Ug) and cassava brown streak virus (CBSV).
These two diseases, spread by a whitefly vector (Bemisia tabaci) and the movement of planting materials, pose a severe threat to cassava production not only in Uganda but in the region as well,thus causing significant losses to farmers and threatening food security.
Walude and other over 250 small holder farmers from across the country may no longer have to go through the jeopardy of pests and diseases. These farmers are part of an on-going project known as Mobile Ad hoc Surveillance system (AdSurv) being implemented by College of Computing and Information Sciences, Makerere University.
As part of the project, these farmers were given smart phones installed with the AdSurv Application and trained on how to use the App to detect diseases in their crops.
When a farmer takes a phone to the garden, he/she can take an image of the plant, for instance cassava, and the App is able to run the artificial intelligence models in the lab, and the results can show the farmer what particular disease the plant has.
“When I go to my garden and find a cassava plant that looks sick, I go to the phone, click on the type of crop I am dealing with, and the application will identify the disease the plant is suffering from. I take the pictures of the leaves or stem, send them to Makerere AIL for further diagnosis,” said Walude.
The AIL team will then diagnose the plant, send information to the research experts at National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) based in Namulonge, and the researchers will in turn hive instant information and advice to farmers on how to deal with pests and diseases threatening their plants.
“This kind of innovation has empowered us with knowledge to be able to diagnose our crops, and get advice on how to deal with pests and diseases early on. And as farmers who have benefited from this technology, we no longer complain about yield losses.
“We harvest healthy crops and are able to feed our families as well as make a profit from selling the crops. I believe that if this innovation reaches all farmers in the country, pests and diseases will be a problem of the past,” he added.
According to Scientific American, an American popular science magazine, an estimated 800 million people worldwide eat cassava. In Africa 500 million depend on the root as their main staple food.
With plant pests and diseases dealt with, the country will be able to save millions of dollars it spends trying to address the problem, and also minimize crop losses.
According Platform for Agricultural Risk Management (PARM) report published in 2017, crop losses due to pests and diseases are estimated at 10-20% (pre-harvest); 20-30% (post-harvest); and up to 100% for perishable crops and export crops. Annual losses in monetary terms amount to US$ 35-200 million (bananas), US$60-80 million (cassava), US$10 million (cotton) and US$8 million(coffee).
Walude was speaking during the research dissemination seminar on the AIL research projects held at Imperial Royale in Kampala recently.
The event was organized by Makerere Artificial Intelligence Lab (AIL) at the Department of Computer Science, School of Computing and Informatics Technology, College of Computing and Information Sciences in partnership with the National Agricultural Research and Resources Institute (NaCRRI).
The theme of the seminar was “From smallholder farming to smart farming.”
How the application works
The project implements a crowdsourcing mobile phone based ad hoc surveillance system (AdSurv) that enables farmers, extension workers and agricultural experts provide near real-time geo-tagged surveillance data for monitoring cassava crop health across the country.
The data collected is in the form of geo-coded images of plants in gardens in the locality of the collector.
According to an abstract from the college’s website, TheAdsurv crowdsourcing system was piloted in several regions of Uganda to provide evidence of the utility of crowdsourced surveillance data to inform actionable interventions.
Three types of image data were identified by NARO in Uganda as being of priority for this system. Theseincluded images of cassava plants manifesting disease, images of cassava pests e.g. whiteflies and finally images of anomalous manifestations on cassava plants in the gardens.
The anomalous images were particularly important for providing early warning signals about a potential new disease outbreak. The system was set up to upload the data to a centralized server.
Dr. Joyce Nabende, Head, Artificial Intelligence Lab said the App is able to detect and show whether the image of the crop taken is health or diseased, and once scientists at the lab have the information, they collaborate with the agricultural experts in Namulonge to help farmers.
“For instance, we provide advice to farmers on what they can do in case the disease has spread in their garden.
Nabende notices that real time surveillance forms the basis for effective crop health monitoring and disease detection, and equipping farmers with skills and knowledge to diagnose their crops instantly without necessarily having to wait for researchers is commendable. However, it is not only the farmers benefiting from this innovation. Researchers at NARO are benefitting as well.
NARO) is an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) with the mandate to coordinate and oversee all aspects of public funded agricultural research in Uganda.
Dr. Chris Omongo the principal research officer revealed that they are in collaboration with Makerere University AIL, and through use of the application, they will be able to diagnose some of the symptoms and diseases effectively.
He explains that research at NARO entails a lot of diagnostics of pests and diseases, as the major biotic stress for their commodities, crops in particular. In the past, researchers would look at a plant using acquired skills by virtue of their training and know that it is suffering from a particular disease.
Omongo who has a vast experience in crop research noted that though they have been doing that very well, sometimes, there are inaccuracies, and the process takes a lot of time because the researchers have to first go to different farms to look at the crops. But the new innovation will save time and resources.
“We are already using the application, and we have realized it is going to make our research much easier, faster, precise, and cost effective. As we speak now, we can identify, quantify cassava brown streak necrosis in roots.
“We are very happy with this. Our collaboration with the AIL is transforming the way we do our research, especially in disease and pest identification, and data taking.
Though the innovation started with cassava crop, but NARO plans to try it on maize and beans, because these plants also have diseases which express on the leaves, and the App can help detect diseases in these crops.
Asked about his thoughts on how farmers will benefit from this innovation; these were Dr. Omongo’s views.
With early detection, farmers are able to save their crops from pests and diseases and through detecting whether the material is clean, farmers should be able to get clean planting material, rather than guess work.
“No more guess work of planting materials, because in our research, we know when you start early, you start clean, you reap big.
He also noted that farmers are now very knowledgeable researchers in their own right, and will be able to decide on what commodity they want to grow which they can be in control of especially in controlling pests and diseases that disturb their communities.
Lastly, he also pointed out that an enlightened and empowered farmer with knowledge is a productive farmer, who contributes towards NARO’s role of food security, nutrition and economic transformation of Uganda.