An app to help African farmers defeat crop pests

A mobile phone app – launched today by an international team of scientists – will help farmers across Africa adopt environmentally friendly ways to protect their crops from pests.

Smallholder farmers in Africa face major challenges from weeds such as striga and insect pests such as the fall armyworm. Fall armyworm is a serious threat to food security and livelihoods and already affects at least 400,000 hectares, causing crop losses worth $3 trillion annually.

But there is a solution – ‘push-pull technology’ – that avoids the use of harmful and expensive chemical pesticides.

Push-pull technology is a scientific method of planting crops like maize and sorghum along with certain species of forage grasses and legumes that repel pests and suppress weeds.

The method was developed by scientists at the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya with partners and is designed to protect plants from destructive pests such as fall armyworm and striga grass, while the friendly plants also improve soil fertility.

But a major challenge is how to deliver advice and information about this crop management technique to the millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. To help tackle this challenge, a new mobile phone application – called Push-Pull – has been launched by Agape Innovations Ltd, in collaboration with a team of scientists from the University of Leeds, Keele University and icipe.

The application is part of a larger project called ‘Scaling up Biocontrol Innovations in Africa’, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which aims to understand how biocontrol methods have been used across Africa and promote their adoption. The project builds on a range of previous GCRF-funded research programmes, including the Leeds-led AFRICAP project.

Lead researcher Steve Sait, from the School of Biology at Leeds, said: “The push-pull method of pest control is decades old and has been used successfully by thousands of smallholder farmers in Africa.

“We hope that this partnership and this new application will help us spread the knowledge of this technique to millions more farmers who can benefit from it. Compared to chemical pesticides, push-pull costs the farmer less money, causes less damage to crops and avoids harming other insect species that perform valuable functions in the ecosystem.

“We consulted extensively with Kenyan farmers and I’m excited to see how the input has made the app user-friendly and can lead to more adoption of push-pull farming.”

Research by the scientists behind the push-pull technique has shown that the odors released by companion plants effectively repel autumn worms and can protect crops against pests.

Early farmers have had great success with the technique, reporting a five-fold reduction in fall armyworm damage and a doubling or tripling of crop yields, demonstrating its huge potential for farmers and small-scale crop producers. It also reduces the environmental impact of agriculture by protecting against pests without the use of pesticides, and improves the quality of the soil without inorganic fertilizers.

Improving food safety

The Push-Pull app launched today is developed by Agape Innovations and is available on Android phones. It has been designed to work on the basic smartphones increasingly used by smallholder farmers in Africa. It gives farmers the information they need to get started with push-pull farming, and not only is it free, but it will work offline, meaning the lack of an internet connection in rural areas won’t affect its function.

The ultimate goal is to provide farmers with a science-informed resource that protects crops and improves yields, accessible at any time of the day from anywhere in the world.

Paul Mugisha, CEO of Agape Innovations Ltd said: “With the digitized world and uncertainties such as Covid-19 increasing the challenges of physical interactions, ICTs are essential in today’s and tomorrow’s agriculture.

“At Agape we have built the Push-Pull app as a global tool to equip a farmer with everything needed for a successful push-pull garden. Embedded with visuals, audio and graphics, we are confident that the Push-Pull app will be important to corn and sorghum farmers around the world today and tomorrow to control fall armyworm, striga and corn stalk borer.”

Professor Toby Bruce from Keele University’s School of Life Sciences said: “We’re excited to see how this app can serve as a vehicle for bringing practical information to the farmer. It’s designed to share key details on how to get started with push-pull. We hope this will lead to real improvements in crop protection and food security. to increase the number of farmers who adopt this innovative approach that offers benefits.’

More information

Image credit: Agape Innovations Ltd

For media interviews please contact University of Leeds Press Officer Simon Moore at simoore@leeds.ac.uk.

The Push-Pull app can be downloaded from the Google Play website

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