How Rwanda is Saving One of its Most Important Crops, the Banana, With an SMS

Rwanda is combatting banana disease through digital innovation. Credit: Alejandro Arigón/IPS
  • by Aimable Twahirwa (kigali)
  • Inter Press Service

"I was thinking that it was the unusually dry weather causing damage to my crop," Ruzigamanzi, who lives in Rwimishinya, a remote village in Kayonza district in Eastern Rwanda, tells IPS.

But in fact, it was a banana wilt infection.

Here, in this East African nation, Banana Xanthomonas Wilt or BXW is detrimental to a crop and has far-reaching consequences not only for farmers but for the food and nutritional security of their families and those dependent on the crop as a source of food.

Banana is an important crop in East and Central Africa, with a number of countries in the region being among the world's top-10 producers.

According to a household survey of districts in Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, banana accounts for about 50 percent of the household diet in a third of Rwanda's homes, where "annual per capita consumption of banana ranges from 400-600 kg, the highest in the world."

But the top factor affecting banana production in all three countries, according to the survey, was BXW.

If not handled correctly, it can result in 100 percent loss of crop.

The latest Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis report released by the Rwandan government and its partners in 2015 indicates:

  • For 2015, nearly one million metric tons of bananas were produced by the country.
  • This was a reduction in productivity.
  • In 2013, for the same period evaluated in 2015, 1.2 million metric tons were produced.
Despite this trend across the country, the report found that the south-eastern Plateau Banana Zone still showed high levels of food security.

Complacency and lack of information contribute to spread of the disease

The BXW disease is not new to the country. It was first reported here in 2002. Since then, there have been numerous, rigorous educational campaigns by agricultural authorities and other stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations.

Farmers in Ruzigamanzi's region have been trained by a team of researchers from the Rwanda Agriculture Board and local agronomists about BXW. But Ruzigamanzi, a father of six, was one of the farmers missed by the educational campaign.

He was unaware of BXW.

Had he known what the disease was, and depending on its state of progress on the plant, Ruzigamanzi would have had to remove the symptomatic plants, cutting them at soil level when first observing symptoms. If left too long he would have had to remove the entire plant from the root.

And it is what he ended up doing two weeks later when a visiting local agronomist came to look at the plant.

By then it was too late to save the tree and Ruzigamanzi had to uproot all the affected mats, including the rhizome and all its attached stems, the parent plant and its suckers.

Ruzigamanzi's story is not unique. In fact a great number of smallholder farmers in remote rural regions have been ignoring or are unaware of the symptoms of this bacterial banana infection. And it has increased the risk of resurgence of the disease in the region, with several districts in Eastern Rwanda being affected by the disease in recent years.

Using technology to educate rural farmers about the spread of a deadly crop disease

It is one of the reasons why scientists here began looking at alternative ways of educating farmers and monitoring and collecting data about the disease.

In June, a collaboration between the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Bioversity International, the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies and the Rwandan government began to tackle the disease through the use of digital innovation.

The new initiative, launched with a total investment of 1.2 million Euros from development partners, seeks to explore the adoption of smart phones and tablets as scalable tools in generating up-to-date knowledge about BXW.

"These innovations could also be useful in determining the severity of the disease thus strengthening control measure, based on past experience and instructions," Julius Adewopo, lead on ICT for the BXW project at IITA, tells IPS.

According to the 2017 report by Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Rwanda's mobile telephone penetration is currently estimated at 75.5 percent in a country of about 12 million people, with a large majority of the rural population currently owning mobile phones.

Central to the project is the citizen science approach, which means farmers and extension officers play leading roles in collecting and submitting data on disease transmission patterns.

Still in the pilot phase, across the country a group of 70 trained farmers, agricultural extension officers and food producers from eight districts use their mobile phones to submit data on the bacterial disease incidence and severity via What's App or SMS messages. A mobile app was also designed to enhance the user experience.

The mobile app provides a real-time and dynamic way to represent disease information on maps, after analysing the collected information from the field.

"The launch of the smart or normal mobile application supports our ongoing efforts to best control the disease in a cost-effective way," Adewopo tells IPS.

A real-time reporting system on the disease

While the existing National Banana Research Programme here has long focused on five key areas of interventions, which include the prevention of BXW using recommended crop disease prevention approaches, Adewopo stresses that the unique aspect of the mobile app is that it is easily scalable in a real time system and the information provided on the application can adapt quickly to any changes.

While the new reporting system is intended to provide an early warning system that will allow the Rwandan government to target efforts to prevent the spread of BXW, it also aims to serve as a catalyst to mobilise partnerships, says Mariette McCampbell, a research fellow involved in ICT-enabled innovation and scaling at IITA's office in Kigali.

"This innovation can also adapt to other crop disease control in the long term and it aims at supporting farmers to transition from subsistence to entrepreneurial farming," she tells IPS during an exclusive interview.

McCampbell is one of the co-authors on a report about the project, which notes that data is key to developing policies and prevention strategies to aid in combatting the disease.

"We see limitations in the amount of reliable and up-to-date data about disease diffusion patterns, severity of outbreaks, and effect of control measures, as well as socio-economic and socio-cultural data that could feed into farmer decision-making tools and an early warning system.

"Development of informed policies and prevention strategies is also hindered by the absence of large-scale accurate data," the report notes.

According to IITA, the livelihoods and food security of an estimated 30 million farmers is currently threatened by the wide spread of BXW and fungal disease. Both diseases have decimated banana crops in East and Central Africa.

"Banana farmers in Rwanda should leverage the benefits of this technology using the existing IT infrastructure with the speed of mobile phone penetration in the country," Adewopo says.

*Additional reporting by Nalisha Adams in Johannesburg

© Inter Press Service (2018) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service