Helping African Farmers Fight Fall Armyworm

“AfriFARM has been used for scouting in fields, identifying fall armyworm, as well as capturing locations… getting the infestation rate while at the same time getting a way forward.”

—Fayilosi, Agricultural Extension Agent, PCI/Malawi

Helping African Farmers Fight Fall Armyworm

“AfriFARM has been used for scouting in fields, identifying fall armyworm, as well as capturing locations… getting the infestation rate while at the same time getting a way forward.”

—Fayilosi, Agricultural Extension Agent, PCI/Malawi

Overview

Fall armyworm is an invasive species that poses a significant threat to the food security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers around the world. The rapidly spreading pest can attack and destroy a wide variety of crops—more than 350 plant species—causing significant yield losses and economic damage. Fall armyworms earned their name by eating nearly all the plant matter they encounter in wide dispersals, like a large army. Agriculture experts have estimated that fall armyworm damage has caused billions of dollars in losses over the last three years.

Native to the Americas, fall armyworm recently moved into Africa and Asia where farmers are now grappling with managing this crop threatening pest. Unfortunately, many farmers cannot identify fall armyworm and have difficulty distinguishing it from other pests such as African armyworm. Some farmers don’t know how to scout for fall armyworm in their fields or how to manage or eradicate this threat when discovered.

While some extension workers are now being trained, they are not equipped with proper management or surveillance tools, which is why PCI launched AfriFARM.

Using Tech to Combat Fall Armyworm

In response to this growing threat, PCI, in partnership with software solution company Dimagi, developed an award-winning smartphone application called AfriFARM (Fall Armyworm Response Mechanism). AfriFARM is designed to improve smallholder farmers’ ability to identify, scout, and treat fall armyworm. The app provides accessible and actionable information on pest management to smallholder farmers and agricultural extension agents working to combat this threat. AfriFARM users can identify the pest, geographically track its location, calculate levels of infestation, and understand different treatment options immediately.

Extension workers using AfriFARM are empowered with scientific fall armyworm education resources and the skills needed to manage this problem within their communities. Data collected on the app allows extension workers to keep record of the individual farmers they support, monitor their progress, and make specific recommendations to keep their crops protected.

In November 2018, PCI and Dimagi won second place for the AfriFARM app in a Fall Armyworm Tech Prize challenge funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future global hunger and food security initiative.

AfriFARM App Testing & Refinement

With the $75,000 award from the Fall Armyworm Tech Prize, AfriFARM pilot testing began in Malawi where PCI has been implementing food security projects for the past five years. In March and April of 2019, 55 agricultural extension workers from the Ministry of Agriculture, private companies, and PCI field staff received training to test the app.

AfriFARM provides three, step-by-step visual learning modules that support users in identifying, scouting, and treating fall armyworm. In the ‘Identify’ module, users learn what fall armyworm looks like at each stage of growth and what pest crop damage looks like in the field. In the ‘Scout’ module, AfrimFARM calculates plots sizes and infestation rates. Finally, in the ‘Treat’ module, AfriFARM helps extension agents and farmers with onsite counseling and decision support.

When it come to pest treatment, spraying pesticides full of toxic chemicals can have serious consequences on the health and safety of smallholder farmers who typically don’t have access to protective gear. Through AfriFARM, farmers are presented with numerous options for low-cost, non-chemical treatments such as directions on when to plant crops, integrated pest management strategies, how to practice inter-cropping and crop rotations, and handpicking of fall armyworm. As a secondary option, AfriFARM provides insights on when or if farmers should spray crops along with a list of locally approved chemicals for pest control.

During the AfriFARM app pilot period in Southern Malawi, participants scouted a total of 167 smallholder farm fields in the districts of Balaka and Machinga and determined more than 97 percent of fields were impacted by fall armyworm. Prior to using AfriFARM, data was difficult to capture and monitor and, when it was recorded, agents had to write reports by hand and send them to the district office. Now, by using AfriFARM, agricultural extension workers can create digital case files for each farmer assigned to them, track the progress of their fields, and sync all the data to an online dashboard that creates an overall picture of fall armyworm‘s prevalence and severity in target areas. Agriculture extension officers can then provide farmers with recommendations for keeping their crops safe.

This two-way data flow enables agents to receive real-time feedback on how to best advise farmers onsite and also provides data visualization to organizations and institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture, helping them coordinate more precise and timely responses to the pest.

During the pilot phase, PCI engaged with one of the largest agricultural input dealers in Malawi to train their commercial farm advisors in the use of AfriFARM. PCI conducted similar trials in Tanzania and has included it in one of our large-scale programs there. PCI is also exploring public and private partnerships to expand the use of AfriFARM in new countries.

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Our Impact

In addition to employing a human-centered design approach, PCI conducted several focus groups and usability studies to gain user-driven feedback on how to improve the AfriFARM experience. PCI also conducted a survey before and after the pilot period to see if the app had any outcomes on the knowledge and attitudes of the users.

After just seven weeks of using the app, agricultural extension agents, integrated pest management knowledge on fall armyworm increased 11 percent. This was a notable improvement considering all agents had received fall armyworm integrated pest management training prior to using AfriFARM.

Agents reported a 100 percent increase in their confidence and felt they had the information they needed to advise farmers on fall armyworm. Participants also reported, on average, a 70 percent time savings due to the use of digital versus paper tools and the ability to instantly sync data rather than filling out forms and writing reports. This time savings enabled them to visit more fields per week and increased the amount of time they were able to support farmers’ efforts to fight this pest.

Growing Through Partnerships

PCI continues making user-driven app improvements and building on collaborative relationships in Malawi, and beyond, by working with Ministries of Agriculture, Fall Armyworm Taskforces, and the private sector.

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