When Dr Srikanth Rupavatharam saw hundreds of farmers dumping their tomatoes in front of an abandoned market in rural India, he started to rethink his role as an economist.
“Every day, I watched as farmers jumped out of tuk tuks in the morning with piles of tomatoes, but by evening, dumped them on the ground as there were no buyers or the price was too low.
“This heap of rotting tomatoes highlighted to me that the critical issue here was in delaying the shelf life so that farmers could provide a quality crop at harvest and postharvest, and make enough to cover the cost of reaching distant markets for their tomatoes.”
This revelation got him thinking about the importance of extension. And, the role of digital tools in getting better information, like market prices or post-harvest techniques, to farmers.
Now a digital agricultural scientist in Hyderabad, India, with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Dr Rupavatharam’s journey has led him to bring such information to millions of farmers.
“Farmers need high-quality, specific information. You can’t bombard tomato farmers with information about cotton. They want specific information, at specific times, to avoid post-harvest losses and drive economic acceleration.”
“I realized the vast potential of digital extension for farmers who often are tricked by traders when they seek agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other agro chemicals. Digital extension enables a voice for the poor, to empower them in the conversation,” he said.
It was while working at ICRISAT on digital extension that he came across the work of two PhD scientists and their digital application called Plantix.
Simone and Robert Strey had set off into the Amazon forest in search of soil data. What they discovered instead, was overwhelming demand from local farming tribes they encountered to solve specific pest and disease problems. The result of their mission was to abandon their original idea of collecting soil carbon data, to instead build what is today an award-winning app for farmers. When they approached ICRISAT for a possible collaboration, Dr Rupavatharam jumped at the idea.
Plantix, powered by the Strey’s Berlin-based startup PEAT GmbH, now uses machine-learning and scientific image data supplied by ICRISAT and local research institutions to bring 75,000 daily users information about pests and diseases.
The app helps farmers diagnose pest damage, plant disease and nutrient deficiencies by taking a photo of their affected crop. Users can discuss possible causes and solutions with each other, or with experts paid to monitor infestations and provide scientifically verified solutions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year because of plant diseases and pests.
“What Plantix brings to the table is a way to help farmers minimize crop losses, for free. Most farmers in India have smartphones. As researchers, we can work with the science, tech companies, and government to bring what we know to more people.”
Detection success is now at 85 percent accuracy. Some diseases with shorter life-cycles needing only four hundred pictures to help identify the problem. Others may require 5,000 pictures to train algorithms to detect disease. There are currently 500 diseases in the database, with a focus on those affecting groundnuts, rice , wheat, tomato and cotton. The app has been downloaded by almost 12 million users globally, with the majority of these in India, where it is available in eight local languages.
“One of the main challenges we face is keeping accuracy high. Diseases and pests are evolving all the time. Staying ahead is a continuous process, and we can never say we’re finished as Plantix keeps evolving. At this very moment there are more than 400 pests and diseases that still need to be entered.”
“This app is an empowerment tool. The value is in the intangible benefits, in giving a voice to the farmers, getting the information to the farmers and in giving them a voice. That is the real outcome – to give a voice to the poor,” said Dr Rupavatharam.