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Satellite Texts Help When Farm Advisors Unavailable

Digital tools such as satellite text alerts are helping Africa's smallholder farmers to increase productivity, even when there is a lack of on-the-ground farm advice, according to Daniel Elger, CEO of the Centre for Agricultural Biosciences International (CABI, the parent organization of SciDev.Net).


"Together, we've seen that innovative digital decision support tools, digital communication campaigns and digital learning can address limited on-the-ground agricultural advisory and extension services and help  productivity," Elger tells SciDev.Net in an interview on the sidelines of the Africa Food Systems Forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

CABI, an intergovernmental organization, has developed digital early warning systems to alert  about likely pest attacks and to provide farmers with advice on how to respond.

The Pest Risk Information Service (PRISE) developed by CABI with other collaborators, uses satellite earth observation data combined with climate change data and pest development models to provide clear advice to farmers delivered by text message on when to intervene to protect crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that annually up to 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests, fanned by the effects of climate change.

Each year, plant diseases cost the  over USD$220 billion, and invasive insects at least US$70 billion, according to the UN body.


During the last major locust invasion in the Horn of Africa, CABI worked with FAO and pioneered the use of drones for applying so-called biopesticides—pesticides based on naturally occurring substances. The organization also developed Green Muscle, one of the important biopesticides now in use against locusts.

The organization has developed a number of , mainly under its global PlantwisePlus program, which provides information on crop diseases to farmers. These include the Crop App Index for cutting through to the apps that are valuable, and the BioProtection Portal, which provides information on nature-based crop protection products.

However, there exist barriers that prevent smallholders from accessing and effectively using emerging technologies to improve  and protect against the changes that are happening as a result of global warming, known in the industry as climate resilience.

"Lack of access to financial and , other resources, inputs, land tenure that would foster long-term investment are key," Elger explains. Other barriers include structural inefficiencies, intrinsic environmental limitations, logistical challenges and market access.

"These factors mean smallholders are vulnerable to challenges, crises and shocks—and have an understandable and necessary aversion to risk-taking as they often can't tolerate or absorb ," Elger says.

Information and skills deficits, poor public advisory services, and gender inequity also prevent uptake of technology by smallholders.

"Studies show that women have less access to innovation and technology and are more vulnerable to climate shocks than men," Elger says. "They produce 20–30 percent smaller crop yields than men due to their lack of access to and control over resources.

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