x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Insead system helping impoverished farmers

A new system is providing key tips to farmers in remote areas of Africa and other parts of the world.

ABU DHABI // A system developed by Insead in Abu Dhabi is helping poor people in the Third World to receive farming tips.

The system, called totoagriculture.org, was funded at a cost of Dh4.7 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organisation created by the American software billionaire Bill Gates and his wife.

"It's about delivering information to the poorest of the poorest citizens of the world," said Philip Parker, professor of management science at Insead, a leading graduate business school. "These are farmers in Africa, India and other areas of the world where there's a lack of information."

The system sends out information on weather, agriculture, farming practices, planting methods and diseases in rural areas - in more than 180 local languages.

For example, a farmer could learn that an infusion of desert rose is used to get rid of ticks on camels and cows.

Or that the ideal temperature at which to germinate plantains is between 25°C and 30°C.

Or the farmer could see pictures of what the fungal disease black rot looks like on a cabbage.

"We worked with premier tropical agricultural groups, for example from the Wageningen University in Holland, to synthesise this information into small fact sheets," Prof Parker said. "They're little tips that were created by them and other vetted sources in agriculture and we automate them in small text messages."

The original content is provided by agricultural specialists from around the world, and translators pull them together.

"It's things we take for granted that aren't implemented in local languages," said Prof Parker. "We work with their local ministries to help implement it better."

The information is stored on a hard disk handed to local non-profit organisations.

"They can then discuss the topics relevant to their country and area through radio, text messages, mobile communication networks and call centres," Prof Parker said. Local organisations can edit and localise the tips.

The system, which took four years to complete, includes more than 286,000 crop tips for more than 38,000 plants. It has 26,000 livestock tips for 23 animals, soil information for 160 countries, pest and disease information for 112 crops and facts for 200 plants.

Farmers in the UAE can use the system, but Insead does not have a local counterpart to hand it over to yet for localisation. So far, it has started working with the Grameen Foundation in Uganda, and a community radio station in Malawi six weeks ago. Malawi was the first country to adopt the system. Kenya followed and Bangladesh have just begun implementation.

"Some of our partners want to create sustainable businesses out of it," Prof Parker said. "It's like a worldwide database of agriculture or a knowledge bank that organisations have been demanding. They're pragmatic little tools in a universal knowledge pool."



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