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Using Emojis to Warn Commercial Tomato Farmers of Disease Threat in Egypt

January 5, 2021

Molly Brown, PhD

Chief Science Officer

Despite the lack of precipitation in Egypt, variations in temperature and winds cause unexpected changes in disease risk for commercial tomato farmers. Tomatoes are a key crop in Egypt and are cultivated using traditional methods and irrigation water from the Nile. Early warning using mobile messages, emojis and weather-driven models provide growers critical information for early response and decision making.

Egyptian Commercial Smallholders

Agriculture in Egypt provides employment for 32% of the labor force and supplies much of the Egyptian food supply. The tomato is the largest horticultural crop in Egypt, representing over 30% of vegetable production total volume. It is also one the most consumed vegetable crops in Egypt, as well as being an important part of the food processing chain (Siam and Abdelhakim 2018).

The tomato value chain in Egypt is dominated by small-scale growers who use traditional methods and cultivate small plots less than five acres in size. Nearly all production is done using a low-tech approach, with small growers having little training or understanding of how to use modern inputs such as pesticides and fungicides to maximize yield. Little training means that growers do not know how to treat, package, and maintain tomatoes in their field to maximize profitability.    

6th Grain Disease Early Warning

Over the past three years, 6th Grain has been working with BASF to support these small tomato growers through our predictive disease platform. The system provides early warning of powdery mildew, early blight, and late blight outbreaks on tomato fields across Egypt. The system provides a way for agronomists working with BASF to rapidly communicate with retailers. In turn, these retailers then communicate with growers using WhatsApp messages and easy-to-understand emojis, such as this: 🤢. Because these growers are usually not literate and have only feature phones (non-smartphones), the emojis allow for immediate and clear messaging to the farmer. The goal of these simple emoji messages is for growers to visit their local retailers and consult with agronomists. These advisor agronomists provide growers with information on weather-related changes in fungal stress and the appropriate response.

Fungal diseases are a significant threat to tomato farmers in Egypt. Thanks to the disease platform, growers are warned of impending cool, damp conditions that encourage fungal diseases. In response to the disease platform’s warnings, growers can apply even a minimum increase in fungicide and increase their revenues at harvest. Fungal diseases cause fewer fruit to form, and after a significant proportion of the leaves are killed by the infection, the plant will produce fruit unfit for consumption. Diseases such as powdery mildew can reduce harvest yields by 75% if fields are left untreated.

Models for Decision Making

Our 6th Grain system provides early and actionable fungal warnings to agronomists, retailers and ultimately farmers being served by them. Using state-of-the-art disease models, we estimate disease risk forecast for region of interest seven days in advance. We support the agronomist and retailer through online and mobile-based digital tools focused on rapidly providing disease warnings. Model calibration is done using our offline/online ‘beacon’ tool, which allows agronomists to upload disease incidence information to rapidly calibrate the model.

Because the digital tool supports the actors already working with small tomato growers in Egypt, we can improve the resilience of horticultural farmers to unusual weather conditions without disrupting the existing relationships between the farmer and their advisors. Although the Egyptian government is working to transform its support of its commercial farming sector, tools are needed to engage with these growers to reduce their vulnerability to unusual weather events and to ongoing fungal risk in a region that has been continuously cultivated for centuries.

G. Siam, T. Abdelhakim (2018) Analysis of the tomato value chain in Egypt and establishment of an action plan to increase its efficiency. [Research Report] CIHEAM-IAMM. 2018, pp.118. hal-02143775

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