Initially developed as a pest management solution, MoA-INFO is now a far more sophisticated advisory service
In 2017 East Africa reeled in response to the impacts of the invasive Fall Armyworm (FAW). While FAW can infest a range of crops, its particular appetite for maize - a staple subsistence crop throughout the region - and its uncanny ability to reproduce and spread, elevated the urgency of need to find a way to empower farmers with information to address this new risk to their livelihoods.
Left unchecked, the destructive pest from the Americas could have dire implications for the livelihoods of poor farmers and food security.
Fall Armyworm at work, destroying livelihoods and spreading hunger
Following talks with the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (MoALF), PAD was invited to develop a service to broadcast advisory messages to farmers about how to identify and manage FAW infestation. In January of 2018, formal marching orders were received in the form of a letter from the Communications Authority of Kenya acknowledging that a FAW advisory service was in the national interest, and endorsing telecommunication companies to broadcast messages to farmers across Kenya.
PAD is committed to developing two-way digital extension systems to facilitate dynamic communications with farmers. The platforms we build should be capable of delivering low-cost, customized advice to improve on-farm practices, input utilization, pest and disease management, and to sustain and improve livelihoods. Rather than deploying a one-way flow of predetermined messages that risked spamming farmers, MoA-INFO was designed as a two-way, interactive platform that is able to both provide information to farmers, and receive communications in return.
Since the official launch of the service on 10 July of 2018 by Prof. Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary of the State Department for Agricultural Research in MoALF, we have been able to learn a great deal from farmers subscribed to the service. We harness the information and data they provide to us to inform and improve the messages, tools and services we provide.
From Left: Benjamin Makai (Safaricom), Emmanuel Barkidjian (PAD Africa Regional Director) and Prof. Hamadi Boga (Principal Secretary of Agricultural Research - MoALF) at the launch of MoA-INFO, July 2018.
Agronomic content, developed with our partners CABI and the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, initially focused on addressing the FAW scourge. To that end, we created a two-way FAW monitoring tool that facilitates a flow of information to and from farmers to check for levels of FAW infestation in real time, whereafter the service provides recommendations for pest-management. Cognizant of the range of financial constraints confronting farmers, MoA-INFO provides a mix of recommendations to empower farmers to make productive investments on their farm some of which can improve outcomes for farmers without access to credit, and some of which can help farmers who are able to access credit.
Learning from farmers about how useful the service is, and what other services can assist them has been core to MoA-INFO since the inception of service. Within three days of the commencement of the service, we began deploying SMS quizzes to measure impact on farmer knowledge. A month later, we began integrating information farmers provided us about their location. Two months after launching we were able to add maize pre-planting advisory and a month after that we commenced sending top-dressing recommendations tailored to farmer’s conditions and cropping cycles based on their location data.
Through the course of 2019, MoA-INFO became much more than a pest-management and maize advisory service with the expansion of the service to cater to new value chains.
At the beginning of 2019 we launched PADDY, PAD’s in-house messaging service, and integrated it into the MoA-INFO platform. PADDY allows us much greater capacity for customization of messaging.
The integration of PADDY to the platform has also enabled the team to deploy Decision Support Tools (DSTs). Utilizing a farmer’s location, Paddy asks users filter questions - such as their land size, budget or preferred characteristics - and then provides them with recommendations for inputs and practices based on their responses.
PAD encourages farmers to use these DSTs multiple times so that they can see how different constraints lead to different recommendations, so that they can make informed decisions about what will work best for them in the current season. Tools currently integrated to the platform include:
- A FAW monitoring tool which asks farmers to sample 50 plants at a variety of points on their farm. After the farmer has submitted their assessment of FAW infestation, the tool generates a context-specific recommendation based on the rate of infestation and the size of their maize stand. The tool then makes recommendations as to whether pesticides are appropriate based on the scale of pest infestation.
- A fertilizer recommendation tool was developed for farmers in six counties to receive customized instructions about the quantity of fertilizer to apply based on the farmer’s land size, location and budget.
- A maize seed selection tool teaches farmers the best maize varieties to plant based on their location. At the end of 2019, this tool had been used by 38,899 farmers. After surveying ~250 users of the tool, we found encouraging results. Over 75% reported learning new information about maize varieties and just under 90% said they would recommend the tool to their friends.
Over the course of 2019 five new crops were added to the service (February - beans and Irish potatoes; July - sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, and bananas), and agronomic content to optimize tomatoes, green gram and sorghum will be added in 2020. We have invited users to receive agronomic content on subsistence and horticultural crops, generating significant interest.
As we continue to develop new content for additional crops, we expect to see higher levels of farmer engagement and new channels to further customize our advisory services.
For example, now that we have information about which crops certain farmers are interested in - as well as the location of those farmers - we may provide a more customized advisory experience moving forward.
PAD staff Maureen Kuboka (left), Derrick Murono (centre), and Christine Nambulumba (right) conducting an in-person survey of farmers enrolled on MoA-INFO regarding Irish potato cultivation.
At the height of the 2019 “long rains” cropping season, MoA-INFO serviced over 367,000 farmers. The service is now capable of offering farmers crop specific recommendations - in English and Swahili - customized to their location and agro-ecological zone. All platform messages are based on recommendations jointly developed with, and approved by, technical experts at the MoALF (including KALRO, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization). The service allows farmers to both pull content, when they are looking for information about crop production or pest control, and receive push messages containing information about farming practices that are timed to coincide with cropping schedules in different parts of the country.