The Pennsylvania State University

Helping 200 million African farmers survive climate change


We will help 200 million smallholder farmers in Africa cope with the massive negative effects of climate change by providing clear, locally relevant daily advice.

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Project Summary

Climate change threatens hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with famine and forced migration. 2019 is the hottest year on record, and Africa is experiencing multiple shocks, from cyclones to concurrent droughts. The UN warns of a “climate apartheid scenario” in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer. To adapt to climate change, African farmers need clear advice on weather events, crop suitability, irrigation methods, flood management and climate smart agricultural practices, as well as links to markets for inputs (e.g. drought tolerant seeds). Advice is available (videos, instructional guides) but delivery is hard to remote locations. Our sustainable solution is to use PlantVillage, an established phone-based advice delivery tool that integrates AI, cloud-based algorithms and satellite observations to measure farm productivity and deliver location specific advice to 200 million African farmers every day.

Problem Statement

Hundreds of millions of African farmers are currently suffering and completely unprepared for climate change. Over 90% are rain-fed, meaning they have no irrigation. In 2019 crop failures from droughts and floods were common across Africa. To adapt to climate change, African farmers should be getting advice from the government’s knowledge extension services, but these services cannot cope. In relatively prosperous countries like Kenya, the ratio is 1 extension officer to 3,000 farmers. In less prosperous countries like the DRC it can be 1:6,000-10,000. Advice from the private sector exists but it does not serve impoverished farmers who typically have <$2/day. This is in line with the recent UN warning of a “climate apartheid scenario,” where the wealthy pay, and the poor suffer.Organizations like the UN and CGIAR, as well as national governments have extensive local language material in videos and illustrated instructional guides, as well as weather services and insights from big data that could enable better forward planning. This experimentally tested advice could help farmers learn about: different crop varieties and types that are climate resilient (drought tolerant maize, or switching to cassava over maize), irrigation methods that are affordable, flood mitigation, soil conservation and other climate smart agricultural topics. The core problem then is the current system of human experts having to travel in person to African farms was not sufficient in a pre-climate change world and is certainly not fit for purpose for the current harsh reality and worrying future we face with climate change.

Solution Overview

Organizations like the UN, CGIAR, and local governments produce advice for farmers. However, the current infrastructure means it does not reach African farmers. Our solution is to deliver this advice at scale using AI, satellites, and cloud computing. Through access to existing data resources, our system knows the production data on every farm in Africa for the last 10 years, its soil health, and what crops are the best options given the current conditions and future weather.We will deliver daily climate smart agricultural advice to 200 million farmers across 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa through a three-tiered cascading knowledge system we already developed among 28,000 farms in Kenya. The first tier is 200,000 Lead Farmers (LF) with the AI assistant/satellite informed advice tool in smartphones that we provide. LF are chosen by their community and are knowledge hubs for 20 neighbors (called Following Farmers, FF). Both LF and FF use the phone for diagnosis and advice. These 4 million farms will provide a 46-country wide sensor system. The third tier are neighbors of the FF. Each FF must provide 50 SMS numbers of nearby farms we can send messages to (most farmers have ‘dumb phones’ for SMS). Our system also enables connections to markets as well as peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. M&E is a design feature of our solution. Since our satellite measurement of crop growth is continuous, our project can be updated based on millions of data points so that it can rapidly iterate and improve.

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Project Funders

  • The Pennsylvania State University 2012 - 2019
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 2018 - 2020
  • United Nations 2019 - 2020

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