14 March 2013

Connecting Africa to a global data network

March, 2013: A new initiative brings smartphones to African farmers, involving them in data collection for global land-use models and at the same time connecting them to weather and agricultural data that can help improve crop yields.

african farmers in the field ©Steffen Fritz, IIASA

african farmers in the field ©Steffen Fritz, IIASA

IIASA researcher Steffen Fritz spent last month traveling throughout Kenya, working with local farmers and agriculture experts on a new project to connect Africa to a global network of researchers and citizen scientists.

Fritz says, “We rarely know what’s going on in the field, and it’s also a challenge to get information to farmers that they can use.”

Fritz’s trip was a first test for the Farm Support project,  carried out in collaboration with the Austrian Weather Service (ZAMG) and sponsored by the Austrian funding organization FFG under the Austrian Space Application Program.

 The project relies on a smartphone app that works in two directions, providing farmers with weather information that could help them to improve yields, while also improving global land-use information. The app provides weather data and requests crop and farming information from farmers. It also allows farmers to take geo-and orientation-tagged pictures of their crops and to document the crop development over the season and upload them into IIASA's Geo-Wiki database. “These data are essential for global land cover models,” says Fritz. 

The app is distributed along with a smartphone, providing an additional incentive for farmers to participate in the effort. While smartphones are still uncommon in Africa, the technology and networks are growing quickly, and mobile phones have infiltrated even the poorest homes, says Fritz.

A group of extension workers in the Wote region in Kenya trade notes.

During the trip, Fritz traveled to sites in 4 climatically different locations around Kenya, to distribute the phones and provide farmers with training and information to make use of the new tool. At the same time, he explored possible problems and talked to farmers about how to make the app more helpful to them. He says, “It was not simple to distribute the phones. Some people did not understand exactly why their crop management data was so useful for us, and others did not know how to make use of the weather data.” In all, Fritz distributed 7 mobile phones and met with a number of farmers and extension workers around the country.

During the trip, Fritz also met with groups such as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Center (ICPAC) in Nairobi, UNEP, small and medium enterprises involved in distributed crop management information via text message and mobile phones, which see the new effort as a potential way to help them monitor the effectiveness of their outreach efforts.

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Last edited: 18 March 2013


Steffen Fritz

Program Director and Principal Research Scholar Strategic Initiatives Program

Principal Research Scholar Novel Data Ecosystems for Sustainability Research Group - Advancing Systems Analysis Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 353

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313