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Computers in the cassava field

The GLCI's mini laptops come loaded with training courses as well as tools for monitoring and evaluation (© Carl Walsh)
The GLCI's mini laptops come loaded with training courses as well as tools for monitoring and evaluation
© Carl Walsh

The cassava fields of East Africa may seem like an unlikely place to expect a computer revolution. Nevertheless, an initiative to fight cassava disease in the Great Lakes region is taking a big step into the future by experimenting with the latest generation of mini laptops. Smaller, more rugged, and less expensive, mini laptops are increasingly suited for the African field, bringing with them a whole new array of possibilities for monitoring and evaluation.

The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative (GLCI), managed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), is a major undertaking to get disease-resistant cassava and training to nearly 7 million farmers in remote parts of six countries in East and Central Africa. Spurred by devastating pandemics of cassava mosaic virus and cassava brown streak virus, the project is particularly ambitious. Constant coordination, communication and monitoring are required to stay ahead of the diseases. Recognising the complexity of the task, CRS Senior technical advisor for agriculture and environment, Shaun Ferris, proposed using GLCI as a testing ground for a higher level of communications technology.

An open-ended technology

Backing came from computer giant Intel, who picked GLCI as one of four winners of its 2009 INSPIRE•EMPOWER Challenge. The competition sought ideas for applying information technology to some of the world's most pressing problems, and the company agreed that this ambitious cassava initiative fits the bill. Intel provided the project with funds for 250 nine-inch Intel 2go PCs with 40GB hard drives, wifi antennas, built-in cameras, and sturdy cases complete with carrying handles.

The mini laptops allow field agents to quickly report on the dissemination of new cassava varieties and the spread of diseases (© Carl Walsh)
The mini laptops allow field agents to quickly report on the dissemination of new cassava varieties and the spread of diseases
© Carl Walsh

Ferris proposed that using the laptops here would be both a boost to GLCI's goals and a perfect test bed for this type of technology. "GLCI, to me, offers all the interesting ranges of things: terrain, connectivity, electrical power, language, education, infrastructure, culture, computing capacity and backup skills," he said. It also allows comparisons across six very different countries. "We need a technology that is flexible enough to cope with that; if we can crack that one, then I think we can scale it out to almost anywhere that we work."

As an open-ended technology with countless applications, the mini laptops allowed CRS programmers to provide multiple tools to GLCI field agents and partner staff. The first of these is a series of training modules called 'Go Courses', computerised classes developed in collaboration with Cornell University's International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. These courses cover disease control, multiplication and dissemination, GPS use, group management, and working with adult learners. Agents can study and take tests in the field, submitting their results online to project administrators.

Lessons learned and applied

The other role of the laptops is to collect and share data in the field. CRS programmers in the US and in India custom-designed a data collection system, which they continue to update and adapt as the project learns new lessons. Through this software, field agents are able to report their findings on disease, cassava planting, seed distribution, and farmer organisation, complete with GPS coordinates to plug into advanced geographic information systems (GIS). Agents can even photograph disease sightings with the laptop's camera. All of this can be uploaded online, or shared with administrators via USB memory stick where agents lack an available internet connection.

By pairing the laptop with a handheld GPS unit, field agents can record location data for quick GIS mapping (© Carl Walsh)
By pairing the laptop with a handheld GPS unit, field agents can record location data for quick GIS mapping
© Carl Walsh

Monitoring and evaluation advisor, Michael Matarasso, reports: "The data has been of tremendous use and has showed us areas where the project is doing great and also areas that need improvement so that we can achieve our goals on time and have the greatest impact possible." Matarasso is finding the laptops more and more indispensable as the initiative progresses saying, "We have learned that this is a tremendous boon for us considering the scale of the project and amount of partners and beneficiaries to cover and the scope of data to collect. If we were to use paper we would be totally inundated with boxes and boxes of data that would ultimately be impossible to manage."

Samson Mollel, Supervisor of GLCI partner group Buheba Rural Agricultural Center (BRAC) in Tanzania, is one enthusiastic partner. "Data collection using the computer is fast, reduces paper work, is accurate and can be shared across the region through a central data base. It is great!" CRS meanwhile intends to apply the lessons learnt to their other projects. The expertise, financial inputs, time and training required to institute the complex system have paid off here, and have shown the importance of matching the right monitoring and evaluation system to the right project. "It may not always be laptops," says Matarasso, "but the lessons learned can be used to help determine what appropriate technology and methods can and should be used in other projects."

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: January 2011

 

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