An advisory tool, scalable for any number of farmers, has shown immense potential in facilitating crucial agricultural decisions. A pilot project of the tool, with over 400 farmers across four villages during 2017 and 2018 in Andhra Pradesh, India, demonstrated increases in groundnut yields on average of 16% and up to 50%.
The Intelligent Agricultural Systems Advisory Tool (ISAT), developed by a collaboration of Microsoft, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU), and ICRISAT, provides concise farm advisories to farmers on their phones. These messages are generated following analysis of local and global historical climate data, current and forecasted weather conditions, crop systems and soil-related information. The tool employs a decision-tree approach to generate SMSes, which are then relayed to farmers registered for the service. By influencing planting decisions, the tool helped farmers increase yield.
”While an SMS containing climate information is not new, ISAT’s approach to combine climate analytics, forecasts and the local ‘soil, crop and management realities’ using a scalable methodology for millions of farmers, is an innovation,” said Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands (ISD), ICRISAT.
In 2017, ICRISAT began to pilot ISAT with farmers in four locations of Anantapur District in Andhra Pradesh state. Before the pilot’s launch, farmers revealed that variations in rainfall pattern between June and October is the biggest climate challenge they face. In addition to the direct effect of low or excess rain, rainfall variations also make decision making uncertain, they further said. During the pilot, pre-season and in-season planning advisories were provided on Fridays to help farmers make more informed decisions in planning and managing their farms.
Pre-season support uses long-term climate trends and information about seasonal climate forecast, including potential ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) events, to support crop selection and land allocation. For in-season crop management, the tool provides advice for land preparation, time of planting, plant population density, cropping systems and harvesting. The advisories are relayed in in English and the local language Telugu in Andhra Pradesh.
Evaluation of ISAT’s pilot exercise in Anantapur revealed that groundnut yields increased significantly at three out of four locations, averaging 16% across the locations. In one location, 56.2% increase was observed. Evidence suggests that the benefits resulted from improved planting decisions. About 58% of the farmers said the messages are reliable as they were precise more than 75% of the time and helped improve farm management through timely operations with reduced risk. Most farmers surveyed also said they would like to continue receiving messages since the tool was of significant value to them.
“ICRISAT is now planning to take this to scale by working with developmental projects such as Andhra Pradesh Drought Mitigation Project (APDMP) and by integrating with initiatives by private sector emerging tech companies,” said Dr Katuri P C Rao, Honorary Fellow, ICRISAT. Dr Rao also pointed out that the partnering tech companies are setting up discussion forums to raise awareness of ISAT among farmers and demonstrate ways to efficiently use its messages that are based on probabilistic forecast information.