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PhotosynQ helping Malawian farmers increase yields


  • A fascinating collaboration has developed between the Kramer lab and Malawian partners to improve land management practices in one of the poorest nations on the planet.
  • The group is using an innovative, homegrown technology called PhotosynQ that allows for plant and soil data collection.
  • The technology comes at a fraction of the cost of current market solutions.
  • After resolving logisitical issues specific to Malawi, PhotosynQ usage rates have soared.
  • The Kramer lab aims to replicate this experience in other countries.

In January 2015, Dan TerAvest flew to Malawi to teach local groups how to use a new technology called PhotosynQ that would help farmers improve yields and better manage their lands. Over a period of two weeks, he trained eight staff and students from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, four staff from Malawian government extension agencies, and a slew of other researchers. The training went well, and the technology’s potential garnered a lot of excitement.

Then Dan returned to the US. And his Malawian network went silent.

This challenge sparked a rethinking process on deploying PhotosynQ that has led to a fantastic partnership between the David Kramer lab at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab (PRL), the John Reganold lab at Washington State University, and local researchers in Malawi.

Applying technology in developing countries

PhotosynQ was devised in the Kramer lab to bring sophisticated technology to the field. Users clip a low-cost device, constructed at the PRL, to a leaf and get loads of data about plant health and photosynthetic activity. The results are uploaded to a website, and participants from around the globe can interact with each other and learn from the data, in other words, something of a social media network for plant science.

Dan, a postdoc with a joint appointment at Washington State University and the PRL, had long had an interest in applying science towards supporting developing countries. When he joined the Kramer lab, he saw PhotosynQ was ripe for Malawi, an Eastern African country where he had previously done fieldwork and built a network of researchers, government officials, and farmers.

“Malawi has a population of 16 million people, and it is one of the poorest countries on Earth. Most farmers live on small parcels of land, and their yields are low because of a lack of agricultural resources and knowledge. Keep in mind that farmland is not homogenous, so farmers cannot follow blanket recommendations on what crops to plant or what seed to get. They need specific solutions, and current agricultural technologies on the market can be cost prohibitive. That was a gap PhotosynQ could fill.”

Map of Malawi. By Rei-artur CC 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Malawi, capital city: Lilongwe
By Rei-artur, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Kramer lab received grant awards from USAID and the McKnight Foundation (the latter a joint PRL-Washington State University project) to deploy PhotosynQ in Malawi and to teach local researchers and farmers how to generate data from agricultural land. In turn, collaborating Malawian researchers and government officials would use the data aggregate to suggest best practices accounting for factors such as economic approach or field and climate conditions.

From disappointment to "Finding Frank"

The idea was solid and the initial reception in Malawi encouraging, but the project ground to a halt after that training session in early 2015. Back in the US, Dan racked his brains with PhotosynQ co-founders, Dr. David Kramer, head of the Kramer lab, and Greg Austic. How could they get people in the field collecting data? What went wrong?

The issue was infrastructure. Despite being in its infancy, PhotosynQ has been used widely across the globe, with over 1,300 users on six continents and 275,000 experimental data sets collected, but this was the first attempt to create a centralized research hub outside of the US. Internet connections were poor in Malawi, which made data uploading hard, and the research infrastructure for PhotosynQ was weak despite the training.

That is when the “data entrepreneur” concept came up. “Having ‘customer service’ dictate solutions from a lab in Michigan, 10,000 miles away, was not going to cut it,” Dan says.

“We had to pay someone to collect data on the ground and connect it with complementary research that was already going on in Malawi. We had to dictate less and just enhance what already was in place. And that’s how we found Frank.”

Frank Mnthambala had worked years ago for Dan as a research assistant during Dan’s field work in Malawi as a PhD student at Washington State University. Frank had gone on to earn a Masters degree in agriculture from Lilongwe University and was working at a local research center when he got the call to join the PhotosynQ team. He was immediately hooked.  

photo of Frank representing PhotosynQ on the ground
Frank representing PhotosynQ on the ground

“Once we had him onboard and ready, we went back to the people I trained and told them that they could call this guy in Lilongwe, because he was doing this job. Suddenly, everybody was calling him. What changed? Well, when you get a new gadget you are bound to run into a problem, and if you can’t fix it, you put it in a drawer. For example, you need to follow certain steps to use PhotosynQ, otherwise it won’t work. Or people forget to sync information with the website. These are all simple problems, but unless someone can resolve them quickly, they turn into mountains. Frank took care of that.”

Data streams in

The amount of collected data exploded. In the first third of 2015, only one project was successfully completed, with 800 data points collected. After Frank joined, 14 projects were deemed fruitful and 30,000 data points were collected throughout the rest of that year.

Dan notes that PhotosynQ is now being used by Malawian researchers to find solutions in crop breeding (“Which seed should I plant?”) and crop management (“Once I have the seed, how do I plant it? How do I till the soil? How many seeds do I use? Basically, the what, where, and how.”) for small land holders.

>Photo of training in Chitedze, Malawi
Training in Chitedze

For example, Donald, from the Department of Agricultural Research Services, Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, has been identifying varieties of sunflower, imported from South Africa, that grow well in Malawi and that will increase market availability. Ivy, another researcher from the same institution, is looking at improving fertilizer and water management practices for maize and cowpea.

Other projects are examining drought tolerance in sweet potato and soybean varieties, crucial crops in parts of Malawi that suffer from frequent dry spells. One university is even trying to introduce quinoa – a high nutrition food – to the country by testing varieties from around the world.

A chain reaction of successes

In 2015, most of the work was done on research stations in highly controlled lab environments. But since PhotosynQ’s mission is to take lab technology to the field, 2016 has seen new projects conducted on 118 smallholder farms around the country.

Researchers are focusing on specific crop management issues facing farmers, such as soil depletion, financial constraints, erratic weather, and so on.

These efforts are also impacting plant science on a broader level back at the PRL, according to Dr. Kramer: “We get access to all this data from so many different crops under so many different places and conditions. As we are analyzing it, we are learning how plants work and getting important clues about how to improve them.”

And Frank is now a bit of a legend in the lab, says Dan. “When we think of the best person to use PhotosynQ, anywhere, we joke that we’re looking for a ‘Frank,’ or we’ve found a ‘Frank.’”

Frank has started his own consulting company and spends most of his time training Malawian groups how to use the technology. He is currently exploring a collaboration with a private seed company interested in measuring its products’ effectiveness.

Malawi has become a testing ground for future projects, Dan says.

“I hope this will open up avenues into other countries, once the logistical and technical problems are figured out in Malawi. We currently have a budding hub in Zambia, and there has been some interest in Uganda. I was also just in Ethiopia, where I met with local McKnight Foundation grantees to examine ways we could collaborate together. I don’t really care where we apply the technology, as long as it is out there helping others do better!”

Banner image of farm landscape in central Malawi by ILRI/Stevie Mann, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Unless otherwise credited, story images are courtesy of the Kramer lab.


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