AgCommons


The BBC Nairobi reporter David Ogot reports with interviews to our AGCommons steering committee member, Peter Ndunda, to Bioversity and CIAT’s Andy Jarvis and ICRISAT’s Pierre Sibiry.

A Message of Hope to Farmers, by Joyce Mulama, IPS Correspondent in Kenya

Helping farmers at the touch of a button, IRIN News  

More to come….stay tuned!

Andy Jarvis

Andy Jarvis

An interview with Andy Jarvis, agricultural geographer, CIAT and Bioversity

Q: You say you have two “mantras.” What are they?

A: One is “crop wild relatives.” (Note: A crop wild relative (CWR) is the wild variety of a domesticated food crop.) When you look at the status of crop wild relatives, it’s actually very scary. They’re not conserved in the wild. And the degree of conservation in gene banks is appallingly low. Many have gone extinct already—and we have no idea what genes they might have had—for disease resistance, productivity, drought or salt tolerance….

At the same time, there’s exponential growth in the demand for and use of these genes through biotechnology. In the past, when you bred a wild crop relative with a cultivar you might get what you wanted—say disease resistance—but along with that came a tough seed coat or small pod or other things you don’t want. Now, you can use molecular markers to take just what you want.

Q: If they’re not in the genebanks, how do you find wild crop relatives?

A: We’ve been going through 30 major crop genepools, including beans, potatoes, wheat, rice, sorghum, cassava, some forages, coffee…. We collect all available information, through herbarium and genebank databases, of every point where wild crop relatives have been observed. Then we model the species distribution see what all these habitats have in common, to come up with suitability requirements.

So if, for instance, we know something exists in ten sites with these characteristics—where else in the world has those characteristics? That’s where you’re likely to find the species.

Q: For example…?

A: Geneticists were searching for wild chili peppers in Paraguay. We found records of 18 places with chili populations in the past, but they weren’t there any more, nor in collections So we modeled the conditions in the sites the botanists had described—and came up with 20 places with similar environments where people might look. It worked–they found the chilis in seven of those places.

In beans, there are 70-plus wild species, all in the Americas. There are 170-plus wild relatives of potatoes. But in lots of crops—maize being one of the most notable—there are just a few wild relatives left. Most of the species have been lost.

A massive global initiative is urgent for our major crops. That’s what the Global Crop Diversity Trust, housed at FAO, is trying to do.

Q: And the other mantra?

A: Climate change and crops. We’ve taken the 50 biggest crops, by area, and modeled how climate change will change their geography. After the biggest—rice, maize, wheat and a couple of others—no one has done this. We’re using a simple, niche-based approach: this crop grows in an environment with this rainfall and other characteristics, based on expert knowledge.

The shocking thing is that there are huge changes, for both 2020 and 2050. For instance, the models show that maize goes way down in Africa. But cassava gains area. Already, there’s anecdotal evidence of farmers shifting from maize to cassava or sorghum.

In a few areas farmers will lose all sorts of options. Maybe today they have 20 crop options; in the future, maybe they’ll only have 3. Some regions are in serious trouble: Southern Africa. Parts of Sahel. Eastern Brazil, northern Africa and the Mediterranean, including southern Europe.

But in East Africa—the rainy parts, such as most of Uganda—massive increases in rainfall are predicted. So farmers may have more choices. And they may be able to crop continuously. But the models show that pests and diseases also rise.

The bottom line is that everything’s changing, and quickly. The first users of climate-change information should be researchers themselves. Most agricultural research programs take at least 10 years to come to fruition out in the fields. So researchers need to target a 2020 world for their 2020 research results—not work toward better strategies for a 2009 world in 2020.

Q: Why do you call yourself a “promiscuous geographer?”

A: I use the same geographic tools—but apply them to all sorts of things: what we’ve been talking about, plus forest biodiversity, coffee quality, forage, threats to protected areas…. I’m interested in so many things, I seem to need to keep moving around.

You can hear Andy’s perspective on BBC Digital Planet – available at ICT-KM Blog on Famers’ productivity

wherecampafricaGoogle Maps has just arrived in Kenya, where it’s feared that mapping the region could inflame inter-tribal tensions over land ownership.

That’s one of the issues that came out of our meeting in Kenya last week: WhereCampAfrica.. But there is a bright side to this!

WhereCampAfrica, which was part of our First Africa Geospatial Agriculture week, brought together about 100 between geographers, cartographers and mobile mapping specialists to discuss the potential – and difficulties – of the ‘geographic web’ in Africa.

The BBC Nairobi reporter David Ogot reports with interviews to our AGCommons steering committee member, Peter Ndunda, CIAT’s Andy Jarvis and ICRISAT’s Pierre Sibiry.

To hear the issues covered in the BBC Digital Planet visit WhereCampAfrica on BBC

CJ Terborgh 

 

CJ Terborgh

An interview with Carmelle J. Terborgh, Federal/Global Affairs team lead, ESRI at the Africa Geospatial technology for Agriculture week in Nairobi

Context:

Launched 40 years ago as a consulting and research firm, ESRI created the first commercial geographic information software, ArcInfo. Since then, geographical information system (GIS) solutions have found use in at least 40 industries– from environmental management to epidemiology; agriculture to transportation; disaster response to demining.

ESRI and the CGIAR centres enjoy a close and longstanding relationship. It’s easy to see how the CG benefits: The memorandum of understanding with ESRI provides CGIAR centres with a number of licenses for software, plus technical support, training and professional development opportunities for a fraction of their commercial cost.

In her interview, ESRI’s Carmelle Terborgh describes, among other things, the arrangement from her company’s point of view.

Q: Why focus on GIS?

A: Our founder and president, Jack Dangermond, likes to say: When humans first developed a microscope, we could see things smaller than we could otherwise. GIS is a “macroscope.” Now we can see bigger parts of the world than we could without it. You can only see 13 miles on flat terrain. But the macrosocope gives you a way to understand the world in a way you could never experience from one location. You can sit in Nairobi, say, and see the world.

Q: How do you view the CGIAR?

We want to support people working in agriculture, food security, livestock—their work is critical, and we can’t do it ourselves. We support a number of conservation, humanitarian, educational programs.

As far as the CGIAR goes, we feel honoured that CGIAR centres are using this.

Jack and Laura (Jack’s wife and VP) have a passion for seeing these tools applied for really good purposes. When you see a huge need, you just have to respond.

Q: Any big event coming up for geospatial specialists to get together?

A: We like to convene the people who are using our software and give them a forum. We host the ESRI International User Conference–this year it’s July 13-17 in San Diego. It’s a really good professional development opportunity for CG staff. Usually representatives from about five CG centres come.

A few years ago we focused on poverty mapping. I’d love to do another one focused on food security. That’s an offer we can make to the CG.

Q: What’s a favorite example of using GIS for agriculture?

A: One of our customers, USAID, had a project in Ghana called TIPCEE. It was really innovative in that they had women using GPS to go out and map the size of farmer fields. One thing they found was that plots were generally considerably smaller than people had thought. So farmers had been wasting money paying extra money for fertilizer and plowing. Also, they were buying too much fertilizer, so it was likely running off into the groundwater.

Another result was that since they had good maps of where the cash crops are grown, they had a better idea of where cooperatives and warehouses should be. Better location of those facilities could mean faster processing for export and shipment.

In addition, the maps helped them get organic certification by European markets. For that certification, you need a map to show you’re not, say, in a protected area, or surrounded by farms using chemicals.

Q: How did you get into this?

A: I’m a geography geek. When I was a kid, I used to read a Time Magazine atlas of the world at night, under the covers with a flashlight.

In college I was a forestry major –I wanted to be working out in the field. But then I developed horrible allergies to trees. So I went back to my first love and did my Master’s and PhD in geography.

Also…my father’s blind, and I think his lack of vision made me passionate about seeing the world. I got pretty good at describing the world to him as we walked together, and as we traveled. And geography is the art of describing our world.

Whitney Gantt

Whitney Gantt

Whitney Gantt

A Quick Win: Community Knowledge Workers in Uganda

AGCommons, the newly funded project coordinated by the CGIAR, is about getting the right farm information to the right person in the right place at the right time.

To jumpstart the effort, in December 2008 AGCommons challenged organizations to come up with a “Quick Win”: a product that would have real impact on the ground, useable within six to nine months.

The Grameen Technology Center, an initiative of the Grameen Foundation, is one of 5 recently announced winners out of 40 entries. Known for supporting microfinance programs across the world, Grameen Foundation also sponsors other wealth-creation ideas, including “Village Phone”. For this micro-enterprise, a villager takes out a loan, buys a phone, or rather a “business in a box”—and then allows everyone in the village to use the mobile for a small fee

“ Village Phone worked really well in 2001 when we started it, but began losing competitiveness as the cost of mobile phones dropped,” says Whitney Gantt, a Program Officer working with Grameen Technology Center. “But mobiles have much more potential for rural dwellers than just phone calls….”

Enter Grameen’s Quick Win solution.
First, Grameen is creating a network of Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs). They will be the information “hubs” who connect agricultural and research institutions with farmers, and vice versa. They’ll have a mobile phone with either a camera or a camera and GPS.

Next comes figuring out the exact types of information farmers need—and how to collect, package, and deliver it through the CKW’s mobile devices. So, for instance, instead of calling an uncle in Kampala to ask about fertilizers, a farmer could ask a CKW, who would connect to the right data source and a have a site-specific answer.

One use of the CKW setup would be an early warning system for crop diseases. Banana diseases, for instance, create a huge drain on farmer income in Uganda, where bananas are a staple crop.

A farmer could call the CKW: “There’s a disease on my bananas.” The CKW motors or bikes to the farm, snaps a photo of the infected plant, and debriefs the farmer with a structured survey, already installed in the mobile. A few clicks send that info plus the exact location (in GPS coordinates) directly to the computers housing the database. As more surveys come in, an analysis of the disease’s whereabouts and progression comes back to the CKWs to distribute to the farmers—along with treatment or preventive actions to take.

And there’s more. “We want to create a suite of information products that CKWs can access and pass along to farmers,” says Whitney. These might include:

 Real-time information on markets and prices
 Where to buy high-quality seed and chemicals—plus information on improved seeds and how to use them
 A farmer hotline. Operators at a call center would answer technical questions using a database, or search on the internet—even connect directly to an expert if necessary. The call-center pilot will begin in early April
 A way for institutions and innovators to get news to farmers, e.g. on a new technique for growing organic coffee, or improved, drought-resistant seeds.

“My dream vision,” says Whitney, “is to see this network scaled up—one community knowledge worker per parish. And all functioning as a two-way info channel. Then farmers can overcome info barriers, increase productivity, get higher prices….

“One big challenge is gender. We have about one third women. But it’s not easy to find women to participate. They can get stuck on the farm with their duties. Or prevented by family members from attending meetings or trainings. How to ensure that this includes women and doesn’t exacerbate gender imbalances is a priority.

“I like how dynamic this is. There are a lot of different opportunities to create value with the farmers and CKWs. It’s not just one mobile application focused on markets. You have a system you can plug ideas into and test. If they work, great. If not, you move on to the next thing.”

A conversation with Meshak Nyabenge, GIS Unit Manager, WorldAgroforestry Center (ICRAF) Nairobi at the CSI-AGCommons meeting in Nairobi

Q: What sparked your interested in GIS?

A: As a kid, I was always imagining I could develop a boundary map of my village. I don’t know why–maybe ‘cause I was good in geography. I thought why not have a map of our own place, know where it begins and ends.

At the University of Nairobi I studied surveying and photogrametry—how to interpret aerial photos. Fortunately a professor impressed on me the benefits of geographical information. So now I’m a GIS analyst instead of surveying people’s plots and getting into land conflicts over where somebody’s property ends and where somebody else’s begins.”

Q: What are some of the cool things happening with GIS at ICRAF?

A: One is mapping of rainwater harvesting and potential in Africa. We estimated
how much rainwater can be harvested in a particular place based on rainfall and use of a specific technology—roof catchment, rock catchment, runoff, other methods. people can see how much water they’re likely to capture in a local area, with which technologies. It’s being used by the rainwater network in Kenya and at ICRAF.

Also, ICRAF wanted to scale up their agroforestry programs. So we developed suitability maps as way of targeting where to scale up use of, say, fodder trees, like caliandra, glyricidia.

Third is, for GTZ and an energy company, we mapped where 11 key biofuel crops could be grown in Kenya. We looked at jatropha, croton, caster, coconut, cotton, sorghum, sugar cane, sunflower, rapeseed (canola) pagamia…. The oil crops would be for producing biodiesel, and the others, like sugar cane, for bioethanol.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re now combining the biophysical and agronomic data with socioeconomic data—population, labour availability. Then we’ll know where it’s most suitable to invest in biofuel crops—and what the potential returns would be.

GTZ and the Government of Kenya plan to use this information for planning and as the basis of investment discussions.

We’ve now received funding to map four more countries: Ethiopia, Rwanda, TZ, Uganda for biofuel potential.

We’re also working with a Kenya-based NGO—the Vanilla Jatropha Development Foundation—to do biofuel mapping, specifically for potential for plantations of jatropha, the “oil tree.”

Q: What do you like most about working with GIS?

A: I use it to conceptualize the human dream. And I can manipulate options to come up with scenarios, applied in different fields. Basically, I’ve always worked with geographic information, and can’t imagine not doing so.

Q: So how about that village map?

A: Until now I still haven’t done it…. There have been a lot of other things to do!

   Srikant Vasan, BMGF  

Srikant Vasan, BMGF

An interview with Srikant Vasan, Senior Program Officer for Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and member of the AGCommons steering committee. Now at the AGCommons meeting in Nairobi

Q: What’s the Gates Foundation’s major interest in Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

A: Agriculture is your prototypical geospatially referenced industry.

Q: Um, translation, please?

A: In other words, for agriculture, location is critically important. It matters where your farm is, what type of soil is there, where the water table is, what your climate patterns are, the distance to your markets. That’s why maps are interesting. The other piece is: Agriculture is very technology and information intensive. We’re big believers in the power of science and technology to improve outcomes. So for both these reasons, we think of geo-spatial information as a key piece of the puzzle.

Q: How are you using GIS?

A: First of all, location intelligence forms a key piece of several grants across our portfolio, from AfSIS (building digital soil maps) to HarvestChoice (enabling key analyses using geospatial information in agricultural development to AWhere (creating local weather data layers to better inform farming decisions). Second, my colleagues in the policy and statistics sub-initiative are looking at primary “Statistics from Space” data and filling gaps, to feed policymakers’ decisions, and enable better crop models using remote sensing data. My focus, though, is based on the assumption that there’s a lot of data already– but it doesn’t get to the field. We want to help data cross boundaries–boundaries within and between institutions. And also to disseminate information out to the field and closer to the farmer. I’m interested in seeing a transition from a focus on data to a focus on solutions. This is happening in bits and pieces. Why should a farmer care what we’re doing How can this data affect a farmer’s life? How can it ultimately improve incomes on the small farm, the dollar-a-day farm?

Q: So how DO you get information to farmers?

A: A good example is Mali Shambani here in Kenya. It’s a radio program that reaches 2.2 milion farmers weekly with information they can use directly.

Q: Not very high tech….

A: It doesn’t need to be cool or fancy technology to be useful! Radio is fine by me. We’re also exploring using cellphones. There’s a model we’re looking into of farmer helplines: people can just call up and ask about their problem and get an answer. It’s showing good early signs of success. Video works, too: local mediators video what successful farmers are doing, then gather a group of 25 to come and watch the video together and talk. In terms of adoption of improved methods per cost – early indicators show that it is up to 10 times as cost effective as regular extension services. We’re planning to support it. Now they are dealing with 1500 farmers. How can you scale that up to 100 times that? And how do you show you have a viable model while doing so?

Q: What are other focus areas of the Foundation for agriculture?

A: The agricultural development initiative has four subdivisions: science and technology, farmer productivity, market access, and policy and statistics. We have 200-plus grants across those four initiatives.

Q: Do you work a lot with the CGIAR centres?

A: The foundation views the CG centers as key partners in our efforts across the board; CG centres are key grantees in all four of these areas.

Q: What is your background, and why are you at the Gates Foundation?

A: I’m an IT entrepreneur, having started, built and sold two companies. After selling the second company in 2007, I wanted to find a way to use my skills and experiences to try to ‘give back’, which is what led to this role at the Gates Foundation. I try to find ways to use IT to turbocharge our efforts to help smallholder farmers.

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