Placing Revolutions in Digital Agriculture into the Hands of Extension Workers and Smallholder Farmers
African smallholder farmers face low productivity because they lack reliable agronomic recommendations that are tailored to their local conditions. For example, judging the right quantity of fertilizer requires knowing the fertilizer cost and crop produce prices, expected weather, cropping history and soil conditions. Crop responses to fertilizer may differ between the fields of two neighbors as much as they can differ between regions or countries because of differences in past soil fertility management. Prices of crop produce vary between areas depending on the proximity and type of market. As a result, farmers are often unable to judge if an investment is worthwhile before trying it.
There are now real prospects for smallholder cassava growers through AKILIMO, an advisory service developed by the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative (ACAI) and scaled through a CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) grant. AKILIMO offers tailored recommendations on different agronomic operations, maximizing returns on investment within a user-defined budget:
- Fertilizer recommendations for cassava growers tailored to local soil conditions and crop calendars for sustainable cassava intensification.
- Advice on appropriate fertilizer blends for cassava-producing geographical areas based on soil types and nutrient deficiencies, cost and potential demand for the fertilizer industry.
- Best planting practices advice with a focus on tillage and weed control to guide farmers to choose the most cost- and labor-effective practices.
- Intensification options for cassava intercropping systems, including recommendations on planting density and arrangement and best-suited fertilizer rates for common intercrops.
- Planting and harvesting schedules that consider local weather to optimize year-round supply of cassava for the processing industry.
- Agronomic practices to maximize root starch content for cassava growers supplying roots to the processing industry.
AKILIMO was cocreated by a partnership led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that includes national and international research institutes and universities as well as development partners from the public and private sector. Scaling partners defined upfront use cases and specified their specific needs for agronomy products. They were fully involved in an inclusive, stepwise process to develop tools, hosting on-farm experiments, evaluating early prototypes and coordinating field exercises to validate the recommendations. Partners also codesigned all training and promotional materials. All AKILIMO products are owned by the partnership. Today, over 30 partners in Nigeria and Tanzania have fully integrated AKILIMO into their dissemination strategies and operations.
In February 2021, AKILIMO recorded over 170,000 registered users in Nigeria and Tanzania. Users mostly requested advice on best planting practices, including tillage and weed control, and customized fertilizer recommendations. We recorded high retention, with 69% of users continuing to use the tools and requesting recommendations again after the initial exposure. Over 75% of users applied recommendations at least partially on their farms. Based on observed yield responses and price records, we calculated that users increased their income, on average, by $120 per household per year. Increased profits are most often obtained through investments resulting in increased root yields, but also through smarter decision-making, reduced investment costs and monitoring market trends and harvesting at opportune times to obtain higher prices for the root produce.
AKILIMO leverages over 50,000 yield measurements from experiments carried out in the fields of over 20,000 farmers, combined with satellite-based weather information, digital soil maps and user-provided input on crop history to calculate recommendations. AKILIMO’s modeling framework couples machine learning with state-of-the-art crop models, geospatial statistics and economic optimization algorithms to provide advice that maximizes net returns on investments.
AKILIMO is available in various formats. An app for Android is freely available on the Google Play store. Further, cassava growers can access the recommendations for free through interactive voice response (IVR) on VIAMO’s 3-2-1 service, and through interactive short message service (SMS) on Arifu’s chatbot. Finally, on the AKILIMO website, simplified, printable decision guides are available, where farmers can look up recommendations in maps and tables and do the calculations in simple worksheets. All interfaces went through a development process that ensures a positive user experience together with partners and extension workers. Modifications and simplifications were made for each interface to balance precision with end users’ capabilities and preferences. Learning journeys were implemented and tested with farmers to ensure the advice is provided in an intuitive way that aligns with farmers’ needs.
In 2019 and 2020, validation exercises were carried out. Over 5,000 farmer volunteers compared the AKILIMO recommendations against their current practices in small side-by-side plots in their farm. Participants were supported by trained extension workers within partners’ dissemination networks, without the direct involvement of researchers. Between 60%-95% recorded profitable increases in root yield for the different agronomic interventions, while less than 10% recorded a loss in revenue. Data collected enabled further improvements to the recommendation framework, as well as insights in how to further enhance the tool interfaces.
Many of the lessons learned in AKILIMO’s development process are relevant to other agronomy-at-scale projects. Already, the approaches used to develop fertilizer recommendations are being adapted to potato for the Rwandan highlands by the International Potato Center (CIP). Critical for success is a digital data collection system that enables all data to be available for analysis within 24 hours after collection. Including scaling partners through an inclusive cocreation process is critical to generate trust and ownership, fast-track integration into partners’ operations and generate learning along the way. In future, CGIAR's Excellence in Agronomy 2030 Initiative will be an important platform to advance the tools and approaches used by AKILIMO and make these available to the wider digital agronomy community.