Computers in the cassava field

Cassava is the main staple crop in many African countries, but the crops are threatened by two major diseases, the cassava mosaic virus disease and cassava brown streak virus, which in the last years have destroyed almost 80 percent of cassava harvests in Africa.

In 2007 the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in close cooperation with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), launched the Great Lakes Cassava Research Initiative (GLCI). This project has been funded with 21.8 million US dollars by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and partners of CRS to help more than 1 million farm families protect cassava in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The objective is to acquire disease-resistant cassava varieties and re-introduce 50 new varieties of cassava in order to make food supplies more reliable and raise the income of farmers.

One crucial point is to monitor and evaluate a wide range of data collected in the field, including in the remote areas of the six countries involved. Recognising the complexity of the task, CRS experts came up with the idea of harnessing the potential of modern ICT by taking mini-laptops into the field. These are provided by computer giant Intel, which is now a new partner in the initiative.

Data collection and training

In a special 18-month pilot project, Catholic Relief Services and Intel rolled out 250 mini-laptops to Great Lakes Cassava Initiative partners and field agents. In cooperation with two software companies, FormRouter and Kimetrica, simple data entry forms have been developed that can be processed quickly by a central database once received by wireless transmission from the field. In addition, CRS has developed training modules to educate farmers in computerised classes on such topics as disease identification, plant spacing for maximum yields, basic business skills, GPS use etc. The computer?s built-in camera will also let project staff take and submit pictures of cassava fields. 

However, the major role of the laptops is to collect and share data in the field. CRS programmers in the US and in India custom-designed a data collection system, which they continue to update and adapt as the project learns new lessons. Through this software, field agents are able to report their findings on disease occurrence, cassava planting, seed distribution, and farmer organisation, complete with GPS coordinates to plug into advanced geographic information systems (GIS). 

Agents can even photograph disease sightings with the laptop's camera. All of this can be uploaded online, or shared with administrators via USB memory sticks where agents lack an available Internet connection. CRS experts involved in the GLCI project are finding the laptops more and more indispensable. Data collection using the computer is fast, reduces paper work, is accurate and can be shared across the region through a central data base.

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