Drones to help map out small scale cashew nut farms in Benin
COTONOU (BENIN) – International non-profit developmental organisation, TechnoServe and technology platform Alteia have announced a partnership agreement that aims to improve cashew farming in rural Benin, through the use of drone technology and artificial intelligence (AI).
With its headquarters in Virginia, USA, TechnoServe is a non-profit organisation that aims to eradicate poverty in the developing world through galvanising help from private sector players. They have had successful projects in 30 developing countries – which include Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Rwanda and Côte d’Ivoire – where they have helped build competitive farming operations, businesses and industries.
Alteia is an AI-driven platform that helps organisation with their digital transformation. The company has over ten years’ experience in capturing and analysing imagery, resulting in a Visual Intelligence offer that combines the best of computer vision and AI technologies. The platform ingests and structures massive varieties of data from the field into a single source of truth, and builds predictive models for industrial and agricultural assets.
The two companies coming together was borne out of a need to help small scale cashew farming in the country, through assessing land management through drone imagery and artificial intelligence. This will help TechnoServe identify the areas of highest need and target interventions and training services to reach farmers more effectively.
By the year 2019, there was little data on small holder cashew farmers in Benin, with their farming habits and their impact they made on the environment also scarcely known.
As a technology partner, Alteia’s task will comprise providing Technoserve “a turnkey digital solution to visualise drone imagery of cashew orchards and extract key agronomic indicators at the tree level,” according to Lenaic Grinard, the company’s head of Agriculture and Forestry. “The existing components of the Alteia Cloud platform will be leveraged, including the data management and collaborative structure and off-the-shelf analytics such as Tree Count, Fraction of Vegetation Cover or Plant Height. On top of this, complementary modules will be specifically developed by Alteia’s data scientists and fine-tuned to fit the characteristics of cashew. These modules will include cashew species identification, density and health evaluation as well as intercropping indicators.”
Cashew cultivation in Benin has grown more than tenfold since the turn of the millennium, now accounting for around seventeen percent of the country’s exports (worth about $437million) – the second-largest export commodity after cotton – and providing income for 200,000 farming families. Cashew production is also an opportunity for climate friendly intervention through tree planting.
The Benin government has targeted cashew nuts exports worth 300,000 tonnes this year.
“However, there are still challenges to be addressed in order to improve productivity and environmental benefits,” said the statement announcing the partnership. “In particular, land pressure can lead to environmentally detrimental farming practices, such as monocropping and land clearing for farm expansion. Arming farmers with climate-smart agricultural skills is essential for ensuring that production can be sustainably increased. For that reason, it is important to generate objective and quickly accessible data that helps provide targeted training to farmers.”
The two partners expect to process more than 1,500 smallholder cashew plantations across the country by June this year.
According to Grignard, processing of data acquired from the farms will be automated to deal with the high data volume and to allow for continued plantation monitoring in the future.
The project’s overall goal is to increase the number of farmers engaged in the climate-smart production of cashew in Benin, and the two partners undertook it as part of TechnoServe’s CajùLab, a project that aims to use drone mapping to promote climate-smart agriculture in the cashew nut sector. CajuLabd was started in October 2019 and is funded by the Wehubit program of the Belgium Development Agency Enabel and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
TechnoServe has already trained over 71,000 Beninese farmers in best agricultural practices such as intercropping and agroforestry management through the BeninCajù program. As a result, over 145,000 ha of cashew orchards are now under sustainable forestry practices.
Under the CajùLab project, TechnoServe will target an additional 10,000 farmers with an updated curriculum on climate-smart agriculture based on the insights generated through the collaboration with Alteia. At the time of its launch, the country Director for TechnoServe Benin, Jerry said his organisation was hoping to digitise the agricultural sector by modernising the techniques of popularisation, collection and analysis of statistical data, using ICTs, promoting mobile payments in the agricultural sector and digital traceability of products.
The drones for the project are provided by Benin’s drone-based digital agricultural solutions start-up, Global Partners, which has been part of the CajuLab project since its inception in 2019.
“We are among the first to deploy drones at this scale in the context of smallholder agriculture in Africa,” said Christoph Weigl, TechnoServe’s Senior Technology Advisor and Project Lead in Benin. “We are working hard to cover more than 1,500 cashew orchards – often no more than one hectare in size – by drone and collect good quality data that is fit for Alteia’s powerful AI algorithms,”