PlantVillage: Supporting Farmers from the Ground Up
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For a significant portion of the African continent, agriculture is carried out by small-scale farmers. These local growers cultivate cassava, yams and soybeans for direct use by their families and the local community. Smallholder farms, as they’re called, account for more than a quarter of Africa’s GDP and employ over 70 percent of people that live in rural communities. Many farmers rely on extremely limited resources, making less than $2.50 a day. New technology, and an increased commitment to community connections, has made PlantVillage a particularly effective partner for these farmers and more around the world.
A global nonprofit and research lab based at Penn State, PlantVillage’s mission is to empower small-scale farmers with modern technologies so they can adapt to climate change and combat a wide range of emerging pests and diseases in their crops. The lab supports farmers and agricultural agents with a blend of open-source information exchange, on-the-ground community connections and cutting edge predictive A.I. technology.
For Executive Director Annalyse Kehs, it’s about breaking down barriers: “Since our inception in 2012, we have worked to provide knowledge to farming communities anywhere in the world for free. A decade ago, our founders recognized the world was heading towards what is called a ‘knowledge apartheid.’ New strategies and innovative technologies are being developed at universities and research centers at a rapid pace, but it is typically stuck behind a paywall via the internet or various expensive academic journals.”
PlantVillage launched a large open access library focusing on crop health to help address the information gap. With embedded social media tools, farmers could ask questions, post photos and request advice about their crops. The images would be tagged by crop type and sent to a local expert who would diagnose and follow up with suggested actions.
In recent years, PlantVillage has taken this impressive source of knowledge and developed applications for smartphones, SMS (text message) platforms, and landline phones. “We wanted to share this information in as many ways as possible,” says Kehs. “Internet access is far from universal, so our efforts work to grow awareness among social networks and build A.I. redundancy, rather than A.I. dependency.”
Major advancements in the lab’s size and capacity began around 2017, with the advent of global partnerships with the United Nations and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The UN collaboration provides the ability to affect policy change and connect directly with government agricultural agencies. With CGIAR, PlantVillage is connecting with research centers and universities around the world to coordinate faster-paced research initiatives meant for developing solutions to crisis-level problems.
PlantVillage’s diagnostic A.I. application, “Nuru” (Swahili for “light”), was developed to directly identify and track disease in plants. One Kenyan cassava farmer, Josephine, completely altered the scope of the project during the testing phase by using the technology in an innovative way not initially considered by its developers. Instead of using the app to only identify disease, she used Nuru to track and mark off her healthy plants, and only propagated new plantings from those healthy examples. She went from an almost completely diseased field one that was almost 100% disease-free in one season.
From that single turnaround harvest, Josephine was able to diversify her crops and take truckloads of new produce to market. Her income grew and she quickly opened a profit-sharing aggregation center with her neighbors which produced not only larger yields, but an increased quality of life for her family and community.
Rapid deployment of new technology and experimentation is at the core of PlantVillage’s impact. A wide range of financial support makes that possible. According to Kehs, “The true value of that money is extraordinarily high because it allows us the freedom to invest in new technologies. We can approach smallholder farmers like Josephine directly with a collaboration or new idea to test and put the research to work right away in the fields. It allows us to create locally and scale globally. If an experiment works, the faster we can replicate its effects on a larger scale.”
DAF donor support has been critical to fulfilling our mission, both in terms of meeting immediate needs and expanding our capacity in the future.
“DAF donor support has been critical to fulfilling our mission, both in terms of meeting immediate needs and expanding our capacity in the future,” said Kehs. “NPT’s donors’ clear, unrestricted and intentional commitment in 2021 means a great deal to the communities we serve and our staff.”
In recent years, PlantVillage has scaled up its operations. Collaborative teams pairing agriculture and biotechnology graduates are now at work in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The organization’s success has not gone unnoticed. The program was recently awarded a significant grant by USAID to expand PlantVillage’s work through the agency’s food security initiative, Feed the Future.
“We are working to build capacity not only in agricultural extension but also in computer vision and machine learning with local universities on the continent, to begin transitioning to full self-sufficiency,” says Kehs. “Combining the passion and knowledge of a new generation of agricultural professionals with farmers in need means that the decision-making power is centered where those decisions matter most, at the ground level. It’s amazing to see in action.”
Tom Miller is a writer, line producer, project manager and creative content professional with more than 20 years’ experience in the nonprofit sector. Prior to joining NPT in 2021, Tom worked with a series of large-scale universities and performing arts institutions in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. From video production and live events to audio storytelling and the written word, he enjoys discovering and clearly communicating the core emotional value of any subject.
NPT is not affiliated with any of the organizations described herein, and the inclusion of any organization in this material should not be considered an endorsement by NPT of such organization, or its services or products.
NPT does not provide legal or tax advice. This blog post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be, and shall not be relied upon as, legal or tax advice. The applicability of information contained here may vary depending on individual circumstances.