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Better rice by mobile phone

Fertiliser must be applied at the right point in the rice growth cycle, and in the right formulation, to produce the boost in yields that farmers want (© IRRI)
Fertiliser must be applied at the right point in the rice growth cycle, and in the right formulation, to produce the boost in yields that farmers want
© IRRI

Rice farmers in the Philippines can now receive fertiliser recommendations tailored to their fields through an automated mobile phone interface. With a set of recorded questions, the system collects information on their particular field conditions and returns recommendations based on a model of nutrient management maintained by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The mobile interface brings the previously web-based Nutrient Manager for Rice (NMRice) system to more farmers and extension workers in remote regions. Launched in January 2011, its first year of operation demonstrates the possibility of making complex nutrient models accessible, while also showing that extension workers will always have a role to play.

A balanced diet for rice

Fertiliser is an important - often essential - component of the intensive rice cultivation practised in Asia, where 90 per cent of the world's rice is produced. But the quantity, chemical balance, and timing of fertiliser application is a precise matter; fertilising in excess or at the wrong time can lead to unnecessary expense for farmers, and can harm the environment when unused nutrients leach into waterways.

Providing precise fertiliser recommendations is one of the oldest goals of extension, but two factors have complicated this. One is the enormous variability of fertiliser needs, specific to every field, soil, crop variety and climate. The other is the changing state of knowledge as researchers continue to refine best practices in fertiliser use. The vision of linking farmers and their rice paddies directly to up-to-date research is what is behind IRRI's NMRice tools, and especially the new mobile phone-based version, NMRiceMobile.

Running the numbers

Using mobile phones to get information to farmers is nothing new. "There are a number of mobile applications for agriculture," says nutrient management expert Rowena Castillo. "Most of them use what we call 'SMS blasting' - sending information through text messages. But the problem with this is that the information provided may be too general, and doesn't respond to the specific needs of a farmer."

After supplying the remote server with information on their field conditions, farmers receive precise fertiliser advice in a text message (© IRRI)
After supplying the remote server with information on their field conditions, farmers receive precise fertiliser advice in a text message
© IRRI

Castillo's team wanted to develop something more interactive. "NMRice required an innovative system of capturing information from the farmers to be linked to a computing server based elsewhere, which processes and instantly sends the fertilizer recommendation back to the farmer," Castillo says.

An example text message:
NMRice: For 94-105 sacks of palay on 1 hectare in dry season w/good management practices: Apply 3 bags 14-14-14 basal or w/in 10 days after transplanting (DAT), 1 bag urea at 21 to 25 DAT, 1 bag urea at 30 to 34 DAT.

Farmers and extensionists access the system by dialling 2378, where a recorded voice asks a series of questions in their choice of English or one of three local languages. After answering 12-15 questions by pressing keypad numbers, they receive a text message with recommendations.

Making models accessible

IRRI's server arrives at these numbers through a set of decision-making formulas known as site-specific nutrient management (SSNM). SSNM represents ten years of research across the continent by scientists such as Roland Buresh, who has led the creation of the NMRice tools. These formulas can estimate requirements for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous applications using information such as plot size and location, rice variety, and yields from previous seasons.

Adapting the complex SSNM model into a set of recorded questions has been a challenge. "Deciding on what questions should be asked without compromising the field-specificity of the fertilizer recommendation was difficult, as we also needed to shorten the number of questions so the call won't be too long," says Castillo. "We often receive feedback from different sources that the length of a phone call is still very long."

In the first year there have been just over 7,000 calls received from around 2,300 unique callers. Of these calls, only 16 per cent reached the end of the session, resulting in about 1,100 sets of recommendations. This low completion rate suggests that the process is still too slow for many callers, and the team have set themselves the challenge of improving the percentage in this next year.

Smartphones and smart extension

The new smartphone version of NMRice includes photographs and other visual information to help clarify its questions and recommendations (© IRRI)
The new smartphone version of NMRice includes photographs and other visual information to help clarify its questions and recommendations
© IRRI

In January 2012, IRRI has also introduced an Android smartphone version, NMRiceApp. Aimed mostly at extension workers, this is a portable version of the web interface and uses the graphic capabilities of smartphones to clarify the questions with photographs. This version can be downloaded free and, along with NMRiceMobile, will be introduced to Indonesia later this year.

However, even if smartphones become as ubiquitous as mobiles, Castillo says, these technologies will still require the interaction of extension workers. "Though the format of the message is user-friendly and easy to understand, farmers need to know the importance of each question in generating fertilizer advice," she says. Text messages leave little room to communicate the actual science of nutrient management, and farmers need to understand the technology and have confidence in the new information source. It's here that extension workers will always have a role in bringing research to the field.

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: March 2012

 

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