x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New game to help farming consultants in Africa

A 3D game developed by Insead in Abu Dhabi aims to train farm consultants in Africa by simulating their very own farming environment.

Provided image of Insead's 3D farming simulation game. Courtesy Insead
Provided image of Insead's 3D farming simulation game. Courtesy Insead

ABU DHABI // A 3D computer game developed in Abu Dhabi is to be used to train farmers in Africa.

The game, Farm Defenders, was developed by the Insead business school from millions of dirhams in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The game is available in more than 180 languages and uses real climate and soil data.

At the start of the game, players are given a virtual farm – arable or livestock – and given the task of making it more productive.

To do that, they are given virtual money to make improvements – a realistic salary for an African farm extension worker of about Dh1,300 a month.

Weeds and pests will appear if they do nothing but making positive changes will help to increase their income. "It teaches you soil management with different types of crops and various soil-fertility levels," said Phillip Parker, professor of management science at Insead. "It also gives you feedback on whether you planted too early, which can reduce yield."

Players can study the quality of plants and the types of fertiliser available. "A lot of people don't do soil tests but they must know [their soil]," he said. "Eventually we want to know if we can simulate real farming and agronomy [this way]."

The game is aimed at farm extension workers employed in government agriculture departments. Acting as consultants to farmers, their jobs are vital to successful farming, but many of those doing the job in the Middle East and Africa are poorly qualified.

"It's almost impossible in the real world to have a successful farm in Africa," Prof Parker said. "There are very few resources to turn a farm into a profitable venture. In Ethiopia, there are roughly 60,000 farm extension workers but they're not necessarily all qualified. So the idea is that you may have the job, but it doesn't mean you can do it."

Experts agree the approach is helpful, although not a complete solution to poor farming practices.

"The modelling of different scenarios [can] always form part of an education approach," said Nicholas Lodge, managing partner of the Abu Dhabi agriculture consultancy Clarity.

He said workshops, along with guidance by an experienced trainer, could also help. But he added: "There's nothing quite like doing it to really understand it."

The game will cover a variety of African agricultural locations, including coffee and grain-growing regions and even desert areas.

Next month, 25 agricultural scientists who have been working on the game for the past two years in Holland will review it. It is expected to be released on March 31.

So far, countries including Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and the Philippines have expressed an interest. Agricultural officials in the UAE are "very interested", according to Prof Parker.

"A new generation of people are coming through and their learning habits are very different to ours," he said. "It's also hard for a lecturer to simulate a farm in a classroom environment when it can take up to six months to know what happens with a crop experiment."