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‘PlantVillage’ AI Helping African Farmers Adapt To Climate Change

There are nearly 500 million smallholder farmers around the world with less than 5 acres of land to sell their crops and make enough money to support their families. Increased stressors due to climate change, including poor soil and infectious diseases, make it even tougher for these farmers to make ends meet.

A Penn State-created web platform, PlantVillage, assists smallholder farmers in 60 nations by connecting them to an international community of public-funded scientists.

PlantVillage leverages advances in AI, mobile phones, drones, satellites, and nanotechnology to provide solutions to farmers.

“[The most satisfying part] has been to make a difference in the lives of the poorest people on the planet,” PlantVillage founder, David Hughes, said. “A phone can increase their profits by as much as 160% and deliver knowledge to the whole community.”

Hughes founded PlantVillage in 2012 and grew the program exponentially in recent years. The name PlantVillage is inspired by the phrase, “It takes a village,” since growing more food for the planet requires a collective response from people with diversity in knowledge, resources, and skills.

PlantVillage’s creation of an AI assistant, “Nuru,” has learned to diagnose multiple diseases in Cassava, infections in African maize, potato diseases, and wheat diseases. She has even diagnosed spotted lanternfly pests in Pennsylvania.

Nuru is twice as good as human experts, and smallholder farmers can carry the AI app around on their smartphones and feature phones to help their neighbors, too. Additionally, the “Dream Team,” a group of young Africans with degrees in agriculture, support the farmers offline.

Courtesy of PlantVillage

PlantVillage operates on less than $2.50 per day, and 85% of the farmers the team works with are female.

PlantVillage also became the major surveillance tool for monitoring locusts for the United Nations, which was done through an innovative approach to crowdsourcing.

Knowledge alone can drastically help smallholder farmers grow more food. Recent trends to paywall agricultural knowledge have hurt productivity, so PlantVillage created the largest open-access library on crop health in the world.

PlantVillage reaches 14 million farmers per week via television and nearly 350,000 farmers via messages on climate-smart approaches.

While there’s a slew of blog posts and videos on PlantVillage’s website, smallholder farmers must register with PlantVillage to gain complete access to AI resources and Q&A threads.

“Since they live in an analogy world, — often no electricity, never mind internet — we have to provide phones, data, and support,” Hughes said.

Courtesy of PlantVillage

PlantVillage has excelled in response to the pandemic. A remote, working team was already distributed, so when the shutdown occurred, the remote staff increased from 12 field staffers to 62.

Many smallholder farmers are experiencing poverty firsthand and are individually navigating the struggles caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But, the No. 1 issue facing smallholder farmers is indisputable.

“Climate change,” Hughes said.

To learn more about PlantVillage and donate to the program, click here.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a junior biology major from York, Pa and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She overuses the ~tilde~ and aspires to be no other than the great Guy Fieri. You can find Colleen filling up her gas tank at Rutter’s, the ~superior~ Pennsylvania gas station. Please direct any questions or concerns to [email protected]

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