Crops get sick, in the same way as animals and human beings, but many smallholder farmers lack the skills needed to treat their diseases, often losing their harvests and revenues. To help address this problem, the international not-for-profit organization Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) and its partners have launched Plantwise, a global programme aimed to reduce crop and income losses from pest and disease attacks.
The programme has established a network of plant clinics, which are specifically designated facilities where farmers get solutions to their plant health problems. These clinics work just like clinics for human health: farmers go with samples of their crops, and plant doctors diagnose the problem and make science-based recommendations on ways to manage it. These “plant doctors” – local extension agents – receive training from the Plantwise programme to diagnose, treat and respond to farmers’ plant health and advisory needs.
As a capacity building and knowledge reinforcing initiative, the Plantwise programme also connects the plant clinics and plant doctors to a knowledge bank that collects, analyses and disseminates practical plant health information, and in this way facilitates an effective diagnosis and the implementation of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. With these two tools – plant clinics and a knowledge bank – Plantwise offers a unique opportunity for farmers to get access to actionable information on plant health risks within their local areas. This strengthens farmers’ capacity to manage their crops, reducing losses and thereby improving food and income security.
Increasing needs for plant health services calls for institutionalization commitments. In Zambia, farmers had long waited for a plant clinic service to address the problems of their crops, just like veterinary clinics are available for farm animals. With the establishment of plant clinics under a partnership between CABI and the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, farmers are becoming familiar with the plant health services. In 2017, Plantwise and its partners organized 10 plant health rallies attended by about 1,000 farmers. It also trained 126 doctors and established 21 clinics in the country.
In 2018, 38 plant doctors were trained by the national trainers with the support of the CABI staff, and 20 new plant clinics were launched. Plant clinics were also showcased in nine agriculture events. Partners under the Plantwise programme carried out mass communication activities to raise public awareness on the fall armyworm (FAW) – a severe pest attacking a wide variety of crops – through national and community radios, reaching approximately 90,000 farmers.
While the number of farmers attending the rallies and receiving advice through mass communication is expected to increase from year to year, Plantwise’s budget can only support a limited number of rallies/farmers. This is because external donor funding and local sponsorships (including from the national government) are stringently limited vis-à-vis the number of farmers, plant clinics and doctors to be supported over the 2013-2020 period.
Acknowledging the situation, CABI is working with Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture to include a plant advisory service within the Ministry’s existing extension service programmes. This will enable extension agents to offer plant pest management and diagnosis to farmers (in particular those in remote areas) across the country without necessarily establishing costlier plant clinics. Moreover, CABI is increasingly working with other partner organizations, including the agriculture colleges and universities, to integrate the plant doctor training in their curriculum, so that graduates from these institutions are much better prepared to join the plant health services which are needed.