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.