Malawi farmers to beat bad weather with OpenHarvest tool

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Smallholder farmers in the central region districts of Mchinji and Kasungu are earmarked to beat the vagaries of climate change using a digital technology tool, OpenHarvest, that helps them farm sustainably.

OpenHarvest was developed by technology firm IBM® and is being deployed under the IBM Sustainability Accelerator program in collaboration with global nonprofit organisation Heifer International. The digital tool offers visual agriculture data to deliver specialised recommendations to farmers through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and climate modelling to enable better farm and field management. It is specially designed to empower Malawi’s smallholder farmers through technology and a community ecosystem.

The technology has reached 200 users in the district of Mchinji in western Malawi and is being scaled up to reach Kasungu. The application’s impact translates to about 1,000 direct beneficiaries, as Malawi has an average family size of about 5 people.

In the 2023/24 growing season, the Department of Climate Change has forecast an El Nino weather pattern that will be associated with normal-to-below normal rainfall, and in some cases delayed rainfall, while dry spells will occur in some areas. A tool such as OpenHarvest will be handy this farming season to help growers plan their rain-fed farming better.

Landlocked Malawi is home to rich, arable land and a subtropical climate suitable for farming. As a result, over 80% of the population is employed in agriculture, and their livelihood revolves around alternating rainy and dry seasons that dictate how the year’s planting, growing and harvesting will unfold. But the once predictable seasons that smallholder farmers rely on are steadily shifting due to climate change.

When the rainy season arrives later than expected, many Malawian farmers still follow outdated agronomy practices that may lead them to plant too early or too late. Smallholder farmers lack access to hyperlocal weather forecasting and data that can help increase their crops’ chances of success, which jeopardizes the productivity and profitability of their season. Their challenges are compounded further by inherent and unavoidable farming risks, such as pests, contamination and natural disasters.

But with access to advanced technology, smart farming recommendations and specialized weather forecasts, farmers can build resilient and flexible operations that can help maximize their fields’ productive potential. That’s why IBM® and global nonprofit Heifer International collaborated through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator to develop OpenHarvest—a digital tool to empower Malawi’s smallholder farmers through technology and a community ecosystem.

OpenHarvest sets out to close a digital divide

OpenHarvest is an open source platform with a mobile application that expands access to visual agricultural data, delivers specialized recommendations to farmers through AI and climate modeling, and enables better farm and field management.

The OpenHarvest model assigns each participating farmer’s field a set of latitude-longitude points that trigger comprehensive recommendations according to local weather and crop growth stages. Additionally, it monitors soil composition data (nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrient levels) to identify how fertilizers should be applied.

From the beginning, Heifer International and IBM sought to develop a low-cost tool that maximizes output. A serverless architecture was ideal to keep infrastructure costs to a minimum under a “pay-per-use” model. IBM Cloud Code Engine allowed IBM developers to reduce time to deployment and focus on core objectives for Heifer International and the farms at the heart of the project—namely, being cost-effective, scalable and reliable.

Historically, Malawian farmers have relied on generalized weather information transmitted via radio to make operational decisions. Most farmers do not own smartphones, so Heifer International and IBM had to find an information-sharing method that could transmit precise crop and soil management recommendations generated by the OpenHarvest model, while remaining accessible and affordable to the end user. The solution was an SMS text message.

IBM Consulting also brought their sustainability experience to the pilot deployment of the OpenHarvest solution, joining a project ecosystem that included Heifer International’s community facilitators, volunteers from a local university in Malawi and smallholder farmers. It was crucial to support farmers not only with smart technology, but with a network of hands-on experts to help build trust and implement solutions.

Creating a profitable future

Climate change is not the only risk that smallholder farmers encounter in Malawi. Though the economy relies on agriculture, farmers have limited access to affordable credit or competitive markets. The cycle of poverty and lack of access to capital have historically pushed farmers in Malawi to purchase cheaper supplies (like recycled seed) which can result in low yields and subpar crops. For this reason, access to affordable capital can be an essential component to promote environmentally resilient practices and drive behavioral change.

IBM and Heifer International saw an opportunity to incentivize farmers to adopt best agricultural practices through a digital extension solution, while simultaneously facilitating connections to access finance and the formal market. Ultimately, the OpenHarvest platform is differentiated by this structure, which encourages farmers to embrace digital technology and retain new farming practices. This leads to long-term profitability and success in a changing environment and economy.

Expanding deployment for greater impact

With 200 users in Mchinji accessing OpenHarvest, application’s impact translates to about 1,000 direct beneficiaries, as Malawi has an average family size of about 5 people. The pilot deployment has now concluded with the sale of the year’s crops. Compared to previous years, most farmers saw increased yields, with some participants even doubling or tripling their output for the season.

As a next step, Heifer International plans to onboard around 300 additional farmers and expand the project into Kasungu, a district in the central region of Malawi. Looking ahead, the program is also evaluating other innovations, such as building out robust AI models and AI integrations based on a roadmap developed with IBM.

IBM and Heifer International are proud to help to change lives in Malawi and build sustainable farming solutions alongside farmers and their communities.

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