Researchers to Unveil New AI App for African Farmers

Pennsylvania State University, USA, researchers are set to release a new AI app that foretells near-term crop productivity for farmers in Africa and may help them protect their food crops, including beans, cassava and maize, in the face of climate warming.

The new AI app will be unveiled on Monday, coinciding with the United Nations Climate Action Summit at the UN headquarters in New York, USA.

While expanding on the need for the app, David Hughes, associate professor of entomology and biology and one of the researchers, citing the two cyclones witnessed in Mozambique, said hundreds of millions of African farmers are already suffering from the effects of climate change and are unprepared for the climate change impacts that are yet to come. Hence, the app will provide the necessary data needed by these farmers for crop cultivation.

The cyclones in Mozambique, which are among the strongest ever recorded in East Africa according to experts, caused almost USD 1 billion in damages, destroyed nearly 80 per cent of staple crops throughout the region and changed rainfall patterns across East Africa, further affecting crop yield and availability of staple food.

The app available for free in smartphones will complement the PlantVillage Nuru app, developed and launched by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State University, USA last year. 

PlantVillage Nuru, an Artificially Intelligent Assistant (Nuru is Swahili for light), is used by farmers to diagnose the damage of the devastating invasive caterpillar pest–fall armyworm (FAW) on maize and cassava. Tests conducted by researchers on the performance of their machine-learning models with locally sourced smartphones in the typical high light and temperature settings of an African farm showed it to be twice as good as human experts at making accurate diagnoses and increased the ability of farmers to discover problems on their farms.

The app can draw in data from the United Nations’ WaPOR (Water Productivity through Open access of Remotely sensed derived data) portal, a database that integrates 10 years’ worth of satellite-derived data from NASA and computes relevant metrics for crop productivity given the available water, and incorporates weather forecast data, a soil dataset for Africa and the United Nations Crop Calendar. It also consolidates tens of thousands of data points across Africa with hundreds more collected every day.

Furthermore, the app offers advice that could help farmers learn about climate-resilient crop varieties, affordable irrigation methods, and flood mitigation and soil conservation strategies, among other best practices.

The app, although smartphone-based, can be accessed through a webpage to inform diverse stakeholders. In Kenya, the PlantVillage AI tool messages are sent out to SMS phones across the country. Developers hope that over time and with the right support, it will be able to extend that service to all of Africa, potentially helping millions of farmers prepare for climate warming.