- Penn State’s PlantVillage uses technology solutions and field teams to increase farmers’ crop yield.
- The nonprofit developed an app to detect crop disease and pests, and support carbon capture.
- This article is part of the “Making Net Zero Possible” series, uncovering forward-thinking solutions that can make a net-zero future a reality.
In early 2020, Edward Idun traveled to the site of the worst locust plague in Africa in decades — armed with a phone.
Billions of swarming locusts were devouring crops and trees vital to the continent’s ability to produce food. The loss of trees could weaken Africa’s ability to combat the climate crisis. Idun and his team tracked down locusts in Kenya using eLocust3m, a mobile app.
A Ghana native and Penn State Ph.D. student, Idun worked with a program called PlantVillage to develop the app. The research and development unit uses technology and field teams to increase crop yield for farmers around the world. Its work to combat locust swarms supported a larger humanitarian response estimated to have saved $1.56 billion worth of food for 36 million people in East Africa.
PlantVillage was conceived in 2010 after David Hughes, a professor of entomology and global food security at Penn State, recognized what he said was the gross inequality of how African farmers cope with pests compared with the global North.
With the help of foundations, tech giants, and $1 million from Elon Musk’s Xprize Carbon Removal competition, Penn State’s PlantVillage has developed eight apps that are used by the UN in more than 60 countries and 30 languages.
African farmers who operate small farms continue to be disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. As warming temperatures spawn more crop pests, groups, including PlantVillage, are increasingly using artificial intelligence to protect agriculture.
Plant pests and diseases cause food crop losses of up to 40%, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated. Each year, plant diseases cost the global economy more than $220 billion, while invasive insects cost at least $70 billion. The climate crisis increases crop diseases and pests — like the desert locust, which could spread because of warming temperatures.
Empowering farmers with technology to make decisions that can improve crop yields and profitability, while adapting to the climate crisis, is what Idun called “a win-win for both farmers and the international community.”
An artificial intelligence assistant for farmers
Nuru, one of PlantVillage’s apps designed to detect crop disease and pests, is perhaps the largest open-access library on crop health in the world, PlantVillage said. The app uses an artificial-intelligence assistant to identify and diagnose plant diseases and pests — particularly in cassava and maize crops — even in the most rural locations.
“The idea was how can we have AI-level disease diagnosis in an offline phone for African farmers, so they could have an expert in their hand, in their field, and in season,” Hughes said.
To combat this digital divide, PlantVillage distributed about 500 smartphones to farmers and seed producers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso.
A practical solution to pests and diseases
With Nuru, farmers are able to diagnose healthy material in their fields and replant only those crops. About 400,000 to 500,000 people are on the platform a month.
Caroline Dama Kitsao has farmed cassava and maize for almost a decade in Kilifi County, one of Kenya’s poorest and least developed regions. More than half of Kilifi’s farmers and their families live in extreme poverty. Dama Kitsao, who joined PlantVillage in 2020, is part of larger efforts to regenerate farmland into carbon-capturing tree farms.
Dama Kitsao said she’s faced a high level of cassava diseases and pests that greatly reduce her crop yields. “Last year we experienced very low rainfall due to climate change, which made our crops vulnerable to pests, thus reducing yields,” Dama Kitsao told Insider in Swahili.
“It has made farming easier for us,” Dama Kitsao said, referring to Nuru. “The levels of pests and diseases in our farms have reduced, and our crops are more healthy.”
Nuru works by using image recognition and detection to spot diseases. Similar to scanning a QR code, farmers can place their phone’s camera over a leaf, and Nuru can spot diseases in real time and share ways to manage them.
“It is important that Nuru has practical solutions that are available to the farmers in a timely and affordable manner,” said Allen Van Deynze, a plant scientist and the director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.
Hughes said Nuru was already having an effect: “The AI technology diagnosing cassava diseases was able to increase the yields between 130% to 530%”.
Carbon capture is the end goal
Chelsea Akuleut uses Nuru to inform local farmers about climate-change adaptation. She’s a member of what PlantVillage calls its Dream Team — young, African, and recruited from agricultural universities. PlantVillage said Dream Team members receive competitive salaries, holiday pay, sick pay, maternity leave, and health insurance.
PlantVillage relies on insourcing, which means it provides green jobs to local residents and students who are already on the ground — a tactic that worked well during the height of the pandemic when traveling proved difficult.
Akuleut is leading a project with the Kenya Dream Team to plant and monitor 1 million trees across 12,500 farms in Kenya. PlantVillage estimated that each farm could capture three to five tons of carbon a year. Farmers are encouraged to plant trees with biochar, a soil additive that can store carbon dioxide for centuries.
“The goal is to have small, centralized biochar production facilities that can serve a community of about 100 farmers guided by our integrated AI and cloud system,” Akuleut said. “Our end goal is carbon capture.”
So far, Akuleut and other Dream Team members have handed out more than 400,000 trees across 5,000 farms in Kenya. The saplings include indigenous and drought- and termite-resistant tree species. The trees also improve farm productivity by acting as windbreaks and reducing evapotranspiration, Akuleut said.
Expanding the model
While PlantVillage hopes to apply its program to the US, it’s not out of the question. PlantVillage previously attempted lantern-fly spotting in Pennsylvania, but it stopped the project for a variety of undisclosed reasons. Still, the Nuru app is open for anyone in the world to use.
AI has become an integral part of agriculture across the US, especially to strategically plant and weed high-value crops, such as lettuce, nuts, and grapes, Van Deynze said.
PlantVillage has expanded some of its projects, including Nuru, to Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Nepal, and Honduras. “We have grand plans to be in 40 countries in the next 18 months,” Hughes said.
He continued: “Imagine 200 million farmers in Africa connected. Basically, we want Amazon Prime for Africa.”