Using Tech to Battle Fall Armyworm in Uganda

  • Sep 11, 2018
Using Tech to Battle Fall Armyworm in Uganda
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), fall armyworm was first confirmed on the African continent in 2016. Fall armyworm can feed on 80 different crop species, including corn, a food staple in Africa. This pest has been found in more than 30 African countries and poses a threat to the food security, income and livelihoods of people on family farms.
 
In July, I had the opportunity to travel to the country of Uganda in East Africa as a technical advisor along with staff from Land O’Lakes International Development. This is a nonprofit organization that implements programs to help improve production and food security for small farming operations around the globe. Our objective was to help spur the use of technology to remediate the fall armyworm in Uganda.
 
Using technology to KO a pest
For this project, Land O’Lakes International Development teamed with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to sponsor a technology award to be given to innovators from around the world who devise a workable solution to the fall armyworm problem. This competition challenges people to focus on solving problems that currently have no clear answer. 
 
At this point, we have 20 competitors from Uganda, Kenya, other African countries and around the world who are vying for a $150,000 first prize and a $75,000 second prize if their idea is chosen. During our July visit, they had an opportunity to practice their skills pitching their fall armyworm eradication ideas to potential investors. Ideas included e-commerce solutions and the ability to diagnose a pest problem via a smartphone app. Competitors are now working to hone their ideas.
 
Barriers to success
About 80 percent of the Ugandan population is involved in farming and agriculture. Farmers do not grow GMO crops — there are no traits there that can help protect against fall armyworm — and the situation brings with it a number of challenges.
  • Not everyone sprays. If one farmer sprays for insects and his or her neighbor does not, the outcome is about the same as if the first farmer hadn’t sprayed at all.
  • Pest identification is challenging: Fall armyworm could be confused with another type of insect, especially in the first few instars.
  • Insecticides may be counterfeit. The supply chain in Uganda is not like those in the United States. Unscrupulous vendors can use a dummy label that resembles the real thing on a jug of product that has insufficient active ingredient or none at all.
 
Tech capabilities that lead the way
Uganda is a country that is embracing technology. During the competition, companies in the capital city of Kampala were demonstrating AI-powered chatbots, machine learning, image recognition, and smart texts to do polling and surveys. The participants in our competition are using cutting-edge tech with ideas and innovations equal to those of Silicon Valley ag tech.  
 
And while tech in Uganda is on par with much of what we do at WinField United, agronomically there are ways to improve. For example, farmers plant three corn seeds in one hole, then thin the plants after choosing the best one. Think of how precision planting has made a lucrative business out of ensuring each seed is perfectly placed; and yet farmers there are still planting by hand. There are huge opportunities for agriculture to advance in Uganda and in Africa as a whole.
 
We will be going to London this fall for the final judging of the competition and will report back on the results.