Technological Innovation Essential for Improving Farm, Grazing Conditions

October 14, 2016 10:40 AM

By Kristen Reesor

DES MOINES, Iowa – The widespread availability of smartphones is changing the way livestock in the Horn of Africa is insured: one photo at a time.

That was one of many technological innovations current and past recipients of the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application talked about at the Borlaug-Rockefeller: Inspiring the Next Generation panel at the World Food Prize on Thursday.

Winners Bram Govaerts, Andrew Mude, Charity Mutegi and Eric Pohlman discussed how technological innovations are improving the resilience of smallholder farmers and pastoralists.

Mude, the 2016 recipient, emphasized the importance of data in his work. He leads the Index-Based Livestock Insurance program in Africa. Satellite technology gives insurance agents views of foraging conditions for pastoralists. Mude said the images show how green the ground is, which can indicate cattle health and show whether pastoralists require insurance payouts for unhealthy grazing grounds. But, Mude said, this data cannot always tell how nutritious a pasture is.

Mude and his team have developed a way to solve that problem using crowdsourcing. They created a mobile application that incentivizes farmers to take pictures and observations of ground conditions and send them to the Cloud. The farmers get about 10 cents for every picture. In about five months, 120 pastoralists sent about 125,000 photos, Mude said.

Smartphone use in Africa is increasing, and Mude and his team are taking advantage of the devices’ popularity to create innovative technologies. Mude said some insurance agents are using a mobile learning tool, similar to a game, to train pastoralists.

“We find that, relative to the normal methods of providing extension, agents who received (the mobile learning tool) improved their comprehension twice over and also their sales of insurance about three times over,” Mude said.

Govaerts, the 2014 recipient, is also a proponent of sharing new technology. He helped farmers in Mexico and other countries transform their farming systems to be more productive and sustainable. Govaerts said it’s crucial that when farmers get new machines, the machines collect valuable data that researchers can use to make further technological advancements.

“It’s more and more important that we work as a whole team here to turn data into information, information into decision-making, decision-making into decision-taking, and then decision-taking into application,” Govaerts said.

Govaerts said another piece of technology that can help farmers is a sensor in silos that measures temperature and humidity to reduce post-harvest losses.

Pohlman, the 2015 recipient, is the cofounder of One Acre Fund, which supplies farmers with quality seed, fertilizer and training. He mentioned an additional innovation in reducing harvest losses- Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage bags. These hermetically-sealed bags work better than insecticides at preventing pests from spoiling stored crops, Pohlman said.

Charity Mutegi, the award rcipient in 2013 for spreading awareness about aflatoxin and its management, proposed a caveat to the idea that technology will improve the lives of farmers. She gave the example of giving aflatoxin testers to farmers. Crops infested with aflatoxins will not immediately kill those who eat them, so people in food insecure areas will continue to eat them despite them causing chronic health implications, she said.

“What do you really expect me to do with my maize when I find out it’s contaminated?” Mutegi said, taking on the persona of a farmer unaware of aflatoxins’ carcinogenic effects. “To throw it away? No.”

Mutegi said the testers would be more beneficial in the hands of traders and manufacturers, who can aggregate crops, test them, and create a demand for safe maize.

Despite the recipients’ different specialties, Judith Rodin, Rockefeller Foundation president and panel moderator, said they all have a dogged dedication to saving lives through science and technology.

This story is published in collaboration with the University of Missouri. Read more about their reporting project at the World Food Prize here.

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