Increasing rural households’ access to rural services

By Robert Delve and Laura Sollazzo

Have you ever heard about PlantWise, Plant Clinics or Plant Doctors?

As you can guess, it’s about plants, it’s about wanting to have healthy plants and it’s about reducing crop losses but mostly, it’s about sharing knowledge. Plantwise is a global initiative led by CABI focused on increasing rural households’ access to rural services, in this case agricultural extension services. Farmers often have nowhere to go to get advice about pests or diseases affecting their crops, as they don’t have regular or easy access to extension services. Plantwise brings these services closer to farmers by setting-up a regular venue staffed by trained extension specialists (Plant doctors) where farmers can get advice on their plant problem and best control measure. Plant clinics are set-up in local meeting places like markets, village squares and human health clinics.

To understand more about the pests and diseases that farmers face, to be able to track pest and disease outbreaks and to check on the recommendations given by the plant doctors, data is collected and then stored in an open-access Knowledge Bank database that is shared with national plant health partners working in research, government, national service offices, academics, and NGOs. Results have shown that 80% of farmers have increased their yields by consulting plant clinics.

To date, the Plantwise network covers countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia, with 1800 clinics, 5000 trained plant doctors and has reached 4.5 million farmers.

What Plantwise offers to IFAD’s target groups 

In December 2016, at the end of the project implementation phase, the Policy & Technical Advisory Division of International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) conducted an After Action Review (AAR) on the performance of the IFAD’s support to CABI’s Plantwise programme and identified lessons and recommendations that can be used by the new CABI-led grant programme on “Integrating ICT Tools into Plantwise to Support More Effective Data Capture and Use” sponsored by the Research and Impact Assessment Division (RIA) of the IFAD's Strategy and Knowledge Department (SKD). Beyond the grant funding, PlantWise is complementing the investment projects in Uganda, Rwanda (specifically projects on water, rural income and agribusiness) and Mozambique to collect impact studies, expand plant clinic networks and support policy changes.

The AAR brought some recommendations and lessons that can be useful for the next IFAD team to consider developing with CABI during the implementation phase of the new grant programme. For one, increased reach can be achieved through innovations at clinic level such as mobile clinics to reach new areas, and plant nurses who allow more clients to be dealt with per session. The networks themselves can have growth opportunities through partnerships with government and NGOs who in becoming convinced of the approach, are willing to invest. Second, data management and use of ICT will enable plant doctors to enter the data directly into tablets to facilitate the timely sharing of information.

What are Plantwise results?

The main result in the three target countries of the first IFAD grant, exceeded the foreseen objectives in terms of numbers of plant doctors trained, plant clinics established and targeted farmers reached. For example, in Mozambique, 80 clinics were embedded in the IFAD investment projects which are many more than the planned nine clinics. Impact assessment have found that, PlantWise has created impact on yield increases, increased the use of non-chemical pesticides, increased household income after visiting a plant clinic and increased farmers linkages with private sector and farmers’ organizations. It was interesting to learn that the governments in Uganda and Rwanda have expanded the awareness of plant clinic through mass media. The Plantwise programme collaborated with the Platform for Agricultural Risk Management (PARM) housed in IFAD, to seek guidance for a timely response to pest management in Uganda and to carry-out a feasibility study on “Crop Pest and Disease Management in Uganda: Status and Investment needs”. The report was presented to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Industries (MAIF) and other stakeholders in a High level Workshop in Kampala on 29 November 2016 and has received support of Government officials and the interest of development partners. This report includes a technical and financial proposal to upgrade the plant health system in Uganda, and it includes several activities directly linked with PlantWise.

What happens now that the grant is completed?

For one, Plantwise would like to pursue its ambitions. The principle idea is to reach more farmers, expand its outreach in more countries and ensure food security through reduced crop losses to improve livelihoods. CABI is also thinking about reaching acceptable levels of sustainability by helping the participating countries take ownership of the programme themselves.

Lessons learned

One of the recommendations was to ensure that a better data collection method is put into place so that plant doctors can collect data electronically instead of filling in cumbersome forms which often take a long time to complete. In response to this gap, CABI informs that the next programme will explore the possibilities to develop a Data App to help improve data collection previously done manually. Similarly, information exchanges can be sent to plant doctors via tablets (see pilot experiences in Kenya) – an area the new grant promises to look into to evaluate the current ICT efficacies in each country for data collection and elaboration and learn from countries that are already using these technologies. Plant clinics should also include data and advisory services on post-harvest losses in addition to losses in its production stages.

The programme also highlights a few predominant pitfalls and challenges that might not be easy to adapt to, such as government requirements up-take of running costs for plant clinics, coping with institutional problems associated with high turn-over of extension and senior staff creating execution delays that could have been avoided if there would be more cooperation between different government departments. Also, clinic data can be viewed as trade-sensitive causing un-avoidable political pressures. It might be necessary to tailor to the country context explaining how the data is fed into the Knowledge Bank and how it is managed and used. The programme also identified the need for plant doctors to network with sources of diagnostic support as a first point of detection of new pests and pest outbreaks. The location of plant clinics might be another area to look into to include more strategic and remote areas such as outside the market place or in agricultural service hubs. Perhaps, in the next project, mitigation measures can be explored to overcome these pitfalls that the previous grant is now teaching us.

Plantwise in the News, something IFAD is proud of

Last month, CABI won two prestigious Awards: (1) the Bond Development Award for Innovation, which was granted for Plantwise’s initiative for implementing inventive approaches to adapt to complex and changing external environments and (2) the St. Andrew’s Prize for the Environment, which recognizes significant contributions to environmental conservation. The prize money will be used to scale up Plantwise digital tools and applications in order to make quicker and better diagnoses and recommendations by improving the speed of data collection and analysis.

IFAD is proud to be associated with the donor group supporting PlantWise and commends Plantwise for its work in improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through development of sustainable agricultural practices on a global scale.