This blog was prepared with deep thanks to Cisco employee volunteer Gina Williams.
Farming communities in Africa have contributed the least to climate change, but they’re paying the greatest costs. Currently, only six percent of arable land in Africa is irrigated. Crops that rely on rainfall are more susceptible since climate change is leading to more erratic weather patterns, including drought.
PlantVillage is on a mission to help African smallholder farmers adapt to climate change at scale, by using artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and an incredible team of young people on the ground. Last year, PlantVillage was the recipient of funding through the Cisco Foundation’s $100 million climate portfolio for a program to help scale regenerative practices on 12,500 farms in Kenya and create many green jobs in the process.
Specifically, the project helped to plant border (including fruiting) trees along the boundaries of farms, contributing to many short and longer-term benefits, such as helping to prevent further erosion through stabilizing the soil, providing shade and wind protection to lower the field temperatures and increase soil moisture, serving as a source of income via the carbon markets and over time, many positive impacts from the fruiting trees.
A short time ago I spent some time with David Hughes, PlantVillage’s founder; Chelsea Akulet, Plant Village Project Coordinator; Tracyline Jayo, Plant Village Research Associate, and several other members the PlantVillage Field Officers, young people local to the area in which they serve, who help to ‘bridge the gap’ between the technology and the farmers.
How did the idea for PlantVillage come about?
David Hughes: The first formalized system of agricultural knowledge sharing began in a time of crisis, in my hometown of Dublin during the Irish Potato Famine. Experts, or ‘extension workers’ were sent out to farms to help them cope with the disease of potatoes (late blight) and help them diversify into other crops. Expert delivery of advice to farmers has continued ever since, across the world. Over 170 years of excellent research has meant that we know a great deal about how to deal with pests and diseases. However, we just don’t share this knowledge effectively with African farmers.
PlantVillage was started to ‘level the playing field’, via the AI charged super computer in your pocket (also called your phone). We provide smallholder farmers in Africa the tools and technologies to diagnose problems caused by pests and diseases on their farms using award winning AI solutions we develop with partners around the world. Government-backed and privately funded ‘extension workers’ do already operate in Africa, but there are not enough of them. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there’s one ‘extension worker’ for approximately every 8-10,000 farmers. PlantVillage is the idea that mobile-connected, cloud technology can help us ‘leapfrog’ and so we pioneered the application of AI in a phone, working offline, that would help smallholder farmers cope with pests and diseases.
Since technology has changed every other sector of the world, why would it not change African agriculture? We wanted to take the same phone and cloud-based software systems that have driven your ability to get food, get a date, or get a lift home, to drive the transformation and adaptation of hundreds of millions of farmers in Africa to climate change.
What made you realize that farmers could be leading the way in climate action?
David: In 2019, two of the largest cyclones to ever hit East Africa left a trail of destruction and made it clear that climate change was here and only going to get worse. It was these events that helped us to shift our focus towards being a climate change-centric organization. Because if you don’t consider how farmers in Africa (particularly, low-income, smallholder farmers who rely on rain), can cope with climate change, all the downstream dealing with pests are for naught, because you’re not focusing on the biggest problem.
Four years later we have seen that climate change has become worse and not just for Africa, but globally. Right now, we’re 1.2 degrees Celsius above historical norms. It’s necessary that we adapt and learn, and engage farmers, so we can figure out how we grow food in the context of our climate changing.
Following an investment by the Huck Institutes at Penn State, providing me a named chair in Global Food Security, I wanted to use the money from that to see if we could not only provide advice on adaptation but also leverage the farms and phones to create AI powered Carbon Capture Cubes. The idea is simple: can AI and the PlantVillage software help us maximize the ability of smallholder farms to drawdown and store carbon at scale. We are focused on tree planting on farms (agroforestry) and the durable storage of carbon in the soil via biochar. This has taken off via Cisco and the Carbon XPRIZE (which we won) and has become a major part of PlantVillage’s efforts.
Tell us more about how the PlantVillage field officers and technology work together.
Chelsea Akulet: We are young people from the community who are known as the ‘sons and daughters of the soil’. We’re come straight from university and have a lot of passion. It’s an opportunity for us to help and it’s easier for our farmers to listen to us and to adapt, as we’re from the same place as them and they trust us.
David: We have found that by bringing smartphones to the typical smallholder farmers they can immediately benefit from the AI system resulting in less diseases in their farms and the ability to connect to the global community to get help. And now with our focus on climate change mitigation via partners like Cisco, we are showing how the phone can be a catalyst. This is not just for adaption and mitigation, but also creating many green jobs such as local people who work in tree nurseries.
Can you share how PlantVillage helps with ‘knowledge sharing’?
David: The philosophy behind PlantVillage comes from Elinor Ostrom’s seminal work on the Tragedy of the Commons. Before she died, Elinor started working on something called the Tragedy of the Knowledge Commons. Increasingly, in a digital world, what’s happening is that small groups are putting knowledge into the public space because it’s good to share knowledge. But then, large actors ‘suck up’ that knowledge and then put a paywall behind it. As we reach a peak of technological connectedness, where knowledge should be more available, it’s becoming less available.
At PlantVillage, we believe that knowledge should be accessible to all individuals. It’s not enough to say that knowledge is accessible and free, you must have a bridge to translate that knowledge. For example, NASA puts out a lot of knowledge every day. But, in Africa, if you don’t have an internet connection, smartphone, or the ability to speak English (or all three), then that knowledge isn’t free. We need to make sure we look at ‘bridges to knowledge’ and think about how knowledge needs to be equitable.
Tracyline Jayo: Farmers get knowledge through the PlantVillage Nuru App. We talked about the app using AI to help farmers in the field to diagnose crop pests and diseases, without an internet connection. But it also contains a library of knowledge, the largest open-access library of crop health knowledge in the world. The Dream Team can then advise them on management and connect them with their nearest ‘extension officer’ to get any further advice.
David: It’s also important to mention the scale. As an organization, with the help of partners, we reach about 14 million farmers in any given week, across multiple channels, for example, TV, SMS and radio. This can be about the weather, biochar, and other technologies.
What does the future look like for PlantVillage?
David: We’re in the global impact game. In a world where the most important thing is growing food for ten billion people, with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, the most important thing is how much time you spend with farmers to help them cope with climate change and leverage their farms to reduce the negative effects of climate change via carbon capture and storage at scale.
The 21st century is Africa’s century because it should be. It’s a young continent made up of 1.3 billion people and by 2050 there will be 2.3 billion, 1 billion of whom will be children. We’re betting on young people and PlantVillage is on a 45-year journey of global change. It’s a global movement, which is right for the time we’re in.
Are you interested in learning more about PlantVillage? Head here for more.