Disease identification app to boost food security in Africa

A team of researchers that has developed an app which will allow small-scale farmers in Africa to identify cassava diseases has won a US$100 000 (R1,4 million) grant to expand the tool for use on other root, tuber and banana crops.

Disease identification app to boost food security in Africa

The international team comprises scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, Pennsylvania State University in the US, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, the International Potato Centre in Peru, and Bioversity International, headquartered in Italy.

The grant forms part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Platform for Big Data Agriculture ‘Inspire Challenges’ programme.

It was presented at the Big Data in Agriculture Convention held recently in Colombia.

According to IITA’s James Legg, one of the leaders of the project, the team generated more than 200 000 images of diseased cassava crops in coastal Tanzania and farms in western Kenya, in order to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm that can automatically classify five cassava diseases.

The app is being field-tested in Tanzania.

The team is also developing a mobile spectrophotometer that diagnoses different viral diseases, even in healthy looking plants.

“Smallholders or extension officers will be able to download the app for free, fire it up, point it at a leaf with disease symptoms, and get an instant diagnosis,” Legg said.

In addition to providing disease identification, the app will supply users with the latest management advice and pinpoint the location of the nearest agricultural extension support should a user need more assistance.

In addition, information gathered through the app will be used to send SMS alerts to farmers about potential disease and pest threats in their areas.

The team is keen to expand their work across numerous sites in Africa and a number of crops that are critical for food security, according to David Hughes, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, who leads the project with Leggs.

By doing this, Hughes believes that the team can amplify the impact of their work a hundred times.