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Digital Tool Developed to Empower Malawian Farmers

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Lanklocked Malawi, located in southeastern Africa is home to rich, arable land and a subtropical climate suitable for farming. This makes the environment especially attractive for farming.

Over 80% of the population is employed in agriculture, and their livelihood is dependent on the alternating rainy and dry seasons that dictate how the year’s planting, growing and harvesting will unfold.

However, due to climate change the once predictable seasons that farmers relied on is steadily shifting and will surely have a significant impact on their crop yields. During rainy season, many Malawian farmers still follow outdated agronomy practices that may lead to plant too early or too late.

Access to Hyperlocal Weather Forecasting and Data

Smaller holder 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.

With access to advanced technology, smart farming recommendations and specialised weather forecasts, farmers can build resilient and flexible operations that can help maximize their fields’ productive potential.

IBM® and global nonprofit  Heifer International collaborated through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator to develop OpenHarvest – a digital tool designed to empower Malawi’s smallholder farmers through technology and a community ecosystem.

OpenHarvest is a mobile application that expands access to visual agricultural data, delivering specialized recommendations to farmers through AI and climate modeling, and enables better farm and field management.

The app assigns each participating farmer’s field a set of latitude-longitude points that trigger comprehensive recommendations according to weather and crop growth stages.

It also monitors soil composition data (nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrient levels) to identify how fertilizers should be applied.

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 supports farmers with using the technology, and with a network of hands-on experts to help build trust and implement solutions.

Providing Access to Affordable Capital

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.

Tripling Crop Yield

OpenHarvest has now reached 200 users in the district of Mchinji in western Malawi. The 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.

The tool also presents incentive opportunities for farmers to adopt best agricultural practices through a digital extension solution, while simultaneously facilitating connections to access finance and the formal market.

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