Helping to Solve Food Scarcity: an App Brings Expertise to the World’s Farmers

The world is going to have to double its current food production by 2050 in order to meet the demands placed upon it by a growing population. This is according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is tasked with ending extreme poverty in developing nations across the world. Making progress on this high-reaching goal requires a multi-front approach, one of which is the use of modern technologies to bring information and new abilities to people who didn’t have it before. The Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico is working in collaboration with USAID to develop technology in the form of a suite of mobile phone applications that will bring badly needed knowledge to rural land owners in developing nations. This knowledge is needed in order to maximize the production potential landowners can get from their land, while minimizing erosion risk on this land so their children and grandchildren are ensured a livelihood in the future.

Maximizing food production sustainably requires knowledge about the land.

All Land is Not Created Equal

One of the best ways of establishing food security in rural areas is by investing in small holder farmers. These farms provide the families who work them with income and their community with a more stable source of food. However, a major hurdle for these small farms is the lack of expertise landowners have in making best use of their land. There are many factors that will determine what can grow on the land, what kinds of activities the land can sustain, or how productive it can be without losing valuable topsoil to erosion. Wealthier nations have systems in place to distribute this important information to land owners, but instability and a lack of reliable infrastructure in the rural parts of developing nations, such as in Africa, can make such a system impossible to implement. However, this lack of infrastructure has had an important side-effect; people in developing nations are adopting mobile phones at a rate that exceeds the rest of the world because it is the only reliable method to connect them to each other.

A Mobile Revolution

Mobile phones have changed Sub-Saharan Africa like no other technology. Over the next five years internet use on mobile devices will increase 20-fold, twice the rate of the rest of the world. They are being used for everything from mobile banking and entrepreneurship to entertainment. Capitalizing on the mass-adoption of this important technology, Dr. Adam Beh, Human Ecologist with The Jornada, and his team are developing a suite of mobile applications for the Land Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS) that will connect landowners with the knowledge and resources they need to make informed decisions about how to manage their land. “Developing countries have been undergoing a lot of pressure to convert marginal lands to agriculture and human settlements,” says Dr. Beh. As people begin using the land for agriculture, “they have to solve the problems of maximizing productivity and reducing the risk of erosion, and to do this with limited technical and financial resources. These apps are about providing landowners with targeted information, and empowering them to make appropriate land use decisions on their own terms.”

The simple interface with graphical displays allows anyone with little to no training to provide the necessary local data and allows landowners to provide information about their location, topography, land use, and soil texture. The system then integrates these local inputs with global databases and returns relevant information to the landowner’s phone regarding local climate, growing degree days, and estimates for production potential and erosion risk (for pilot countries in Kenya and Namibia). The application takes advantage of a smartphone’s features such as a camera, GPS, compass, and clinometer to help the landowner enter information.

Kenyan land manager and community members using the application to assess soil texture (left)
with LandPKS screenshot of embedded soil texture video tutorial (right).

Keeping Power in the Hands of the People

The application will eventually allow landowners to connect with others who are working in areas with similar conditions and similar potential. For example, a landowner who is grazing livestock on arid lands in East Africa will be able to connect with others who are doing the same in the Southwestern United States, and they will be able to share knowledge and expertise with each other to solve their common problems. The application is also open-source, which allows for continuous improvement by a greater community and a focus on ensuring that it always serves the needs of the people who use it. Designed with the purpose of keeping power over information in the hands of the people, it allows them access to knowledge that was previously only held by experts so that they themselves can make informed decisions about what is best for their land.

The LandPKS applications are currently in beta testing in Kenya where conservation organizations are using them to assess the potential of restoration success, and in Namibia where local partners will use them to gather information about the carrying capacity on their communal lands. The initial release for both the land characterization and rangeland monitoring applications is slated for Spring 2015 and the applications will be available for use by anyone with a smartphone.

Screen shots of the LandPKS applications with its easy to use interface.

Food insecurity is a problem that crosses international borders, and is one that if left unchecked, will get progressively worse into the future. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the solution will be multi-faceted but cannot come without the empowerment of individual land owners giving them the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about how to best use their land. Although targeted towards developing nations, the LandPKS app gives anyone, whether a farmer in Namibia or a land manager in the United States, the information they need right in their pocket.

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Adam Beh – Human Ecologist at The Jornada Experimental Range,

Johnny Ramirez – Science Writer


Photo Credits:

Farmer watering sugar cane: africa11|africa|BigstockPhotos

Land manger using the application and screen shots of the Land PKS application interface: USDA-ARS The Jornada Experimental Range