Citizen science and an app for managing banana Xanthomonas wilt

Citizen science and an app for managing banana Xanthomonas wilt

Researchers from IITA in Rwanda are working on a new app to help farmers manage banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW). The idea is to use “citizen science” to upload data from farmers’ cell phones. However, an initial study has found that while most farmers do have access to cell phones, they need more training to be able to get the most from their keyboard, camera and other features. Farmers also want the app to come ready-made with information, images and videos on how to manage bananas in general, as well as BXW.

EVOCA (Environmental Virtual Observatories for Connective Action) is a project with WUR, RTB and other partners. EVOCA encourages users to share information (for example, on water issues or crop pests and diseases) via cell phones to contribute to collective knowledge and action in five case studies in rural Africa. One case study with CIP in Ethiopia helps farmers to manage late blight and bacterial wilt, two important potato diseases.

Field pre-testing of BXW-App with farmer-promoters at one of the focal villages for intervention. J. Adewopo/IITA

Another case study in Rwanda is designing an app to help farmers deal with banana disease, explains Mariette McCampbell, a former visiting scientist at IITA, now at WUR. “There are two groups of scientists, one that thinks that African farmers have no cell phones, or if they do, they have no air time, or the phones are not charged up. And there is the second group that thinks that the whole world is ready to start using their smartphones for everything. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle,” McCampbell says.

McCampbell is conducting fieldwork in Rwanda with IITA, Bioversity International, the Rwandan Agricultural Board and others to find ways to use “citizen science” to manage BXW. Citizen science has been around in northern countries for some time, as local people gather data on birds, insects or other topics to share with scientists. But citizen science is new in the developing world. The wide availability of cell phones offers a new opportunity to link farmers with researchers by making more explicit use of cell phones and their new communication opportunities.

In rural Rwanda, most people now have access to cell phones, but not necessarily all the time. The problem is not just air time or electricity. Farmers may not have a network signal all the time, and most have analog phones, not smart ones. Even so, having a cell phone is a huge step for rural people, who with their first phone also get their first camera, their first video player, their first text messenger, their first GPS … all in their pocket. This is a lot of technology to learn about all at once. “We have spent years learning to use keyboards and cameras, so we cannot expect the farmers to learn to use all of this technology in a two-day training,” McCampell says. Researchers who want to interact with farmers on the phone, for example, to get geospatial data on disease, will have to invest more in training.

Beta version of the BXW-App (pronounced “Box-Up”), reading for field pre-testing. J. Adewopo/IITA

With the right training, cell phones may be just the tool to teach farmers how to manage BXW. In Rwanda, McCampbell found that there had been a huge effort to teach BXW management. The Belgian government funded farmer field schools and the trained farmers were expected to share information with their neighbors. The Rwandan government’s extension service goes right down to the village level with farmer-promoters. But
still, farmers were not adopting the new disease management techniques, such as removing the male flowers (to keep bees from carrying bacteria from diseased plants to healthy ones) and disinfecting hand tools between working on two plants.

McCampbell found that even seemingly straightforward techniques were ignored if farmers did not know why they worked. For example, single diseased stem removal means culling a diseased sucker from the banana mat–yet even this can be misunderstood. Some extension agents thought that if they removed a diseased sucker, the whole mat would be cured. They were dismayed when diseased suckers kept appearing. So, recommendations for farmers need to explain why a control technique will work or not.

As part of the participatory development of the app, farmer-promoters and sector agronomists said that they did not want to simply upload data. They wanted answers right away for BXW and even for banana management in general. So designers enhanced the app with information on BXW, fertilizer use and even when to plant bananas, all in the Kinyarwanda language. The team also added photos, drawings and videos. The extension agents liked those visual aids most of all, because illustrations help to share ideas more effectively and give credibility to the person sharing the ideas.

“Phones don’t replace face-to-face ways of sharing information, but they are in addition to face-to-face, which will never reach everyone,” McCampbell adds. Hopefully, the BXW app will be a positive example of a way to use cell phones as an entry point to engage young people in agriculture.