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From Field to Screen: The Role of AI in Pest Management

By Jonas Miselo & Mwiinga Mukuwa

Climate change has continued to be a global concern that threatens food security resulting in pests and diseases with increased or decreased potency.

Among the major crops in Zambia, cassava is affected by cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease. Sweet potato is affected by Sweet Potato Virus Disease (SPVD. Maize is affected by the fall Armyworm pest (FAW) which causes significant damage to maize.

This calls for accurate identification and sustainable management of the FAW, Cassava diseases, and sweet potato diseases among major stakeholders, the small-scale farmers, which is lacking and inadequate due to mainly inadequacies in the extension services.

Therefore, the development of the PlantVillage app as an innovative solution that uses Artificial intelligence (AI) through Google’s open-source TensorFlow technology is being proposed to be used to identify symptoms of CMD, CBSD, the feeding damages of Cassava Green mites (CGM) and maize fall armyworm (FAW) infestations. the app will be used in the development of risk assessment tools, predicting the potential distribution and damage of the targeted pests and diseases due to climate change, and supporting farmers at scale in pest and disease management.

In this vain the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) is receiving funding from the Pennsylvania State University’s USAID Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops (CETCIL) for the “Project of Upscaling of the Plant Village App for monitoring, forecasting and mitigation of the effects of Climate Change on pests and diseases of maize, cassava, and sweet potato in Zambia.”

Speaking at the training workshop for PlantVillage Zambia Field technicians, which was held at Relaxin Lodge in Nchelenge district, Mathias Tembo who is the Senior Agriculture Research Officer under the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) in the Ministry of Agriculture says they are promoting the use of the PlantVillage application which uses Artificial intelligence (AI) among farming communities.

“The current problems we are facing are the effects of climate change, this season Zambia has been hit by the effects of climate change, with over 70 percent of the country failing to receive rainfall,” he said.

Mr Tembo who is also the principal Investigator for the PlantVillage project in Zambia expressed concern that crop production among farmers has adversely been affected by different pests and diseases. The PlantVillage application comes in very handy as it will be used by the farmers in their fields to identify problems of different types of diseases and pests.

Mr. Tembo said for now, the project is targeting Maize, Cassava, and sweet potato.

“In the first phase of the project we want to upscale this technology so that more farmers can be able to accept and utilize it, the target within the next six months is to reach out to about 20,000 farmers who will be utilizing this technology,” He said.

Mr. Tembo said they are utilizing the newly recruited Technicians who are graduates from different universities, who will be working with camp extension officers who are on the ground and will go out in the field to train farmers to adopt this technology.

“They will go out in the field to survey for pests and diseases out there in the fields, and this app will be able to collect this data and once the information is sent it will be used to solve future problems, “Tembo said.

“This technology has been tested against experts from the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in its ability to identify pests and diseases, it was equal in strength in identifying these pests and diseases, and it was further tested against the extension officers, “He said.

He said that AI technology is a new tool that should be welcomed and applied, it will not eliminate the jobs for human beings, it will just speed up the process of finding solutions to problems.

And officiating at the same event, Nchelenge District Agriculture Coordinator Arnold Muimui says the PlantVillage application has come at the right time when the population of Nchelenge district is growing and needs good yields.

The DACO said factors such as climate change, pest infestation, and disease infections have become an important issue that affects crop production which has resulted in reduced yields hence food security is threatened.

He said due to the effects of climate change pests and diseases have become evasive to the human eye and more evasive to his crops.

“For CBSD and CMD, mankind has not sat idle, people are working day and night to invent several means to resolve these stumbling blocks to food production, this is through utilization of Artificial Intelligence,” He said

“The PlantVillage app is a game changer, I would rather call it a next-age extension service technology, it would not have come at a better time than this, I am happy we have this kind of technology in agriculture,” he  further said.

The app can be used to gather information on the dynamics of these crop protection matters to develop approaches and tools that can be used to control pests and diseases in crops, such as the use of natural enemies to control pests.

Mr. Muimui said the objective of this training is to orient the field technicians on the utilization of the PlantVillage app to establish and facilitate data transfer, and development of approaches and means to control plant pests and diseases.

“My appeal is to the facilitators of this project, let them extend the PlantVillage app to the camp extension officers so that they can also be empowered to utilize this tool which will help our farmers to increase their crop yields,” said Muimui.

AndLawrence Ombwayo Associate Director of Plant-Village Kenya hopes that the App will help fight food insecurity in Zambia.

“The app will help us collect data, carry out surveillance that will help us find solutions to current and emerging threats and come up withsustainable solutions that our farmers will adopt and that will solve the issue of food insecurity.

The project has recruited and trained a PlantVillage Team comprising of ten agricultural extension officers and graduate youths to conduct field surveys, disseminate knowledge, and support farmers in adopting pest and disease management practices.


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