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[NAIROBI] Mobile phones are the unlikely weapons being used to fight cassava disease in Tanzania, in a collaboration between scientists and farmers.

As part of the Digital Early Warning Network (DEWN) farmers from ten districts in the Lake Zone region of Tanzania will be trained to recognise the symptoms of Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) and Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD).

They will then send monthly text messages to the researchers about disease incidence — and receive disease control advice in return.

CMD and CBSD are viral diseases that stunt the growth of cassava crops and rot the roots respectively.

Each group of farmers — 60 overall — is given a topped-up SIM card with which to text the researchers. They then meet monthly to discuss observations and send the text messages.

James Legg, a virologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Tanzania and leader of the project, says that DEWN is part of a larger project entitled the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative (GLCI), which aims to improve the livelihoods of more than a million farmers in six countries of the Great Lakes region by tackling issues that affect cassava yields.

The first part of DEWN, which started last month (June), is the establishment of the farmer network by visiting the groups to train them in recognising cassava disease and communicating with researchers at the Lake Zone Agricultural Research and Development Institute (LZARD).

Innocent Ndyetabura, a plant researcher at LZARD, says that the project will not only build farmers' knowledge of cassava diseases but also enable researchers to forecast disease prevalence in threatened areas.

Legg says the benefits will be immediate as farmers will also get access to other agricultural information from the extension officers and researchers.

He adds that the near real-time information on the status of the two major cassava crop diseases will be used to develop maps — hopefully within weeks of initial reports coming from farmers.

"We will be able to put these together for the whole region to produce a more comprehensive dataset on the regional epidemiology of these diseases than has ever been achieved previously."