Team:WashU StLouis/Uganda

District Agriculture Officer

Joseph Dhikusooka, the District Agriculture Officer for the Iganga District who is responsible for overseeing government subsidies and providing support for farmers, was able to speak to us about farming practices and challenges in the region. Mr. Dhikusooka
Meeting with Mr. Dhikusooka
noted that several challenges farmers face in the district include: climate change, pests such as worms and fungus, and the lack of a consistent driving market. He described how his work includes travelling to farmers in rural regions to enquire about the specific pests and problems they face. Using the information they gather from field camps or their office, they produce “prescriptions” that are distributed to farmers in veterinary shops. He also mentioned that the government will subsidize the use of pesticides when large outbreaks occur. Although less frequent, fungal infections also affect farmers by reducing crop yield by ninety percent in the fruiting stage of growth. Overall, fungi decrease the yield in the district by ten percent each season.

Mr. Dhikusooka also spoke of the positive impact the increased use of pesticides and fungicides has brought. He cited that when properly used, pesticides can reduce crop loss from 80 to 5 percent. Interventions with fungicide and the identification of fungal infection spots on the leaves of plants allow farmers to reduce the impact of fungal infections.

Farmer dries harvested peanuts
Despite the increase in crop yield, Mr. Dhikusooka noted that pesticides can harm farmers who do not wear any protective gear while spraying. He suggested that this is due the high cost of protective equipment and lack of knowledge regarding negative consequences from pesticide exposure. He estimated that only between 2-5% of farmers wear protective gear in his district and noted that early detection would help minimize unnecessary spraying and direct subsidies towards farmers affected by rust.

After learning about our project, Mr. Dhikusooka expressed an interest in using our device in his work to track the spread of the fungus and more readily identify different strains and types of fungi. He also mentioned that its use would increase as government-sponsored labs work to develop resistant crops since about half of the farmers in the district use seeds provided by multipliers who produce improved seed varieties developed in government-sponsored labs. As more farmers begin using improved seed varieties and the quality of multiplied seeds improves, developing seeds with an increased variety of resistance genes will become increasingly important. Tracking which strains are most prevalent and identifying more resistance genes will play a large role in such progress.

Demonstration Farmer

Our team spoke with George Bunyinza who receives guidance from the community development organization, Musana, and brings in other farmers for brief training. He mentioned that climate change and fungal infections are some of his largest problems. He listed the orange dog caterpillar, coffee borer beetles, army worms, and nematodes as other pests that significantly affect his crops. His fields are sprayed regularly by a hired laborer as a preventative measure against fungal infections.

Mr. Bunyinza and family
Mr. Bunyinza noted that most farmers don’t use preventative equipment because they cannot afford it. He and a Musana representative added that Musana ensures that those spraying wear protective gear. However, when asked to see the equipment they require people to wear, we were only shown a few pairs of rubber boots.

While discussing our project, he said that earlier detection of the presence of fungus could help his farm as he would increase the frequency and dosage of spraying to combat its presence. He claimed that increasing the frequency and dosage has decreased crop losses when fungal diseases have been present. Despite the process working for him, he agreed that an early detection system could further help increase crop yield by beginning the process earlier. Since fungicides are expensive, fungal detection mechanisms would make the process more effective and less costly for farmers.

He also provided insight on optimizing our hardware for Ugandan farmers. He suggested that we use solar power for our hardware since its use is rapidly growing and would make it cheaper. In addition, he mentioned that he would not want to check his field very frequently. However, it is worth noting that farmers in the area tend to their crops every day to ensure the quick detection of pests. If the testing strips were made easy to gather, collecting them would not be too much of an extra burden during their usual activities.

Tree Life

We were also able to speak with James, the executive
Sweet potato crops seen on tour
director of Tree Life, to learn more about their work and facilities. Tree Life is a Christian community development organization located just outside of Iganga. They train farmers, educate pastors, conduct skill classes for women, and help improve local education. They place a large emphasis on their education platform, teaching farmers and children how to seed and maintain crops effectively. Along with discussing Tree Life with James, we were able to visit students at a local school supported by Tree Life, speak with a women's empowerment group, and tour their demonstration farm.

Tree Life’s main farming focus is centered around education and community organization. James raised concerns about the general lack education as it results to the use of fungicides and other chemical applications, showing a chemical rash/burn on his own hand as proof of the dangers they pose.
James showing rash on his hand
He stated that farmers rarely get advice on what to apply, sometimes applying the wrong thing or applying a solution too potent for the area of their plot. The burn/rash on his hand was from mixing pesticides and is far from unique from other farmers in the area.

Tree Life’s education initiative encourages farmers to adopt safer farming and application practices. They are trying to develop training to allow farmers to apply fungicides effectively and develop their own irrigation systems to combat climate change. They encourage farmers who can afford for regular fungicide application to spray every ten days, even though James admitted that he has seen some diseases take whole crops in a matter of a few days or even just twenty hours.

James mentioned that our device could greatly improve fungal detection times since farmers rely on visible cues to diagnose a fungal infection. For instance, many times they wait for the leaves to curl together, for spots to form, or for ants to climb the plants.

Tree Life works to improve community organization among farmers to allow them to better information and resources. James has found that farmers are more successful when they don’t have to worry about accessing expensive equipment such as backpack sprayers. He also noted that tight knit communities are more likely to have better access to healthcare and farming supplies due to pooled economic resources. He believes that such organizations would be critical for the successful adoption of our device.

Using his experience in the area and work with local farmers, James recommended that we power our device with a solar panel and make sure farmers can receive the detection result themselves. He clarified that farmers would recognize a green light as a positive signal and a red light as an alert for something wrong with their crops. James also recommended that we distinguish which crops can be affected by the fungus that is present rather than simply detect the presence of the fungus. This was because farmers often intercrop and have a tendency to spray all their crops even though only one is affected. The farmers need a method to target the crops that were susceptible to the fungus. It would also allow them to conserve fungicide and reduce the amount of time needed to spray their crops.

Local Farmers

In Uganda, we were able to meet with 13 community health workers
Meeting with Mr. Kyirongero
who operate small to medium size farms in the area. They were selected by an NGO, UDHA (Udanda Development and Health Association), to represent best practices in their community. In addition,
Enoch holding fungicide
we were also able to speak with Mr Sefatia Kyirongero, 109 year-old farmer and his family.

Through conversations with them, we learned that major issues the farmers face include a lack of technical education or support for dealing with pests and disease, lack of financial resources, and climate change. Fungal infections majorly affect farmers across Uganda. Most small or subsistence farmers don’t have access to fungicide and reliable technical support due to their location and cost, worsening the effects of the fungus. They estimate that fungal infections decrease their yield by 50-70%, sometimes even destroying the entire crop.

For those who are able to access it, fungicide can increase their seasonal yield by 40-50% in the presence of a fungal infection. Our device would improve the effectiveness of fungicide application, saving time and money for the farmers while increasing yield.
Waibe holds backpack sprayer

Lydia and family with sprayer
However, fungicides have negative impacts on the health of farmers. After spraying their crops, farmers noted a week respiratory system, abdominal pain, headaches, nausea, and skin and eye irritation. Robert Waibe, a large farm owner described how he “tries not to breathe” when he sprays his crops every other week and can suffer health effects for two days.

Most farmers manage climate change and other pests using various improvised methods. Some develop their own irrigation systems by carrying jerry cans full of water to their plants from a well. To spray their crops, some farmers loan out backpack sprayers and others use brooms to spread pesticide on their crops.