Smoothing the path to smallholder access

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Digitalization forms a key pillar of our Foundation’s work. One example is an app for seed variety trials. Spreading its well-trained use to other organizations should bring benefits all around. 

The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) started its Seeds2B (S2B) program in 2011. The goal was, and still is, to improve smallholders’ access to modern, high-performing varieties that they need. Within a few years, the program spread quickly across several African countries; a wide partner network implemented numerous crop trials. This success also created a challenge, however: As the scope of work grew, the S2B team found itself handling dozens of trial sites, hundreds of varieties, and millions of data points.

“Having masses of results on Excel sheets makes it very hard to use the data fully”, explains Camille Renou, S2B Africa Technical Lead. He initiated the work in West Africa. “We clearly needed a digital solution. We tested several commercially available systems, but none completely matched our requirements. So we developed our own.”

After several years’ co-development with Resonanz Group, SFSA staff began using the Field Trial App (FTA) in Kenya, Senegal, and Mali in 2018 and 2019. The tests there enabled improvements for wider use. In parallel, SFSA invested long-term efforts in optimizing tool features and harmonizing protocols* for the best data analysis.

“When I started working on the FTA in 2018, there was still a long way to go in harmonizing protocols across trials and partners. Since then, we’ve made data collection and analysis far more efficient,” says S2B Project Officer Sophie Sinelle, who wrote her Ag Engineering thesis on this topic. (For more on Sophie’s training with SFSA and her findings on the FTA, see the links below**)

Involving partners improves learning and results

The ambition, however, is to go further with the app than only coordinating SFSA-managed trials. SFSA variety assessment has always involved a diverse network of partners. In 2020, S2B began training external FTA users. Our team in Mali pioneered these efforts, together with the country’s National Research Institute (IER) and IFASP Agricultural School in Bla/Bougouni. The feedback has been very encouraging; our aim is soon to have all S2B trials managed via the FTA.

Sharing the app more widely is also an excellent route to further improvements. “It’s useful, easy to run, and reliable”, comments Abdrahamane Sylla, an assistant cowpea breeder at IER in Cinzana. “But we recommended some improvements in the way items are displayed, the units used, and in pest and disease measurements.”

Youssouf Diarra echoes the praise. He’s Head of the Agriculture Department at IFASP. “The FTA is a very good way to collect and secure trial data as it avoids the disadvantages of paper”, declares Youssouf. “Thanks to the SFSA training, I was able to use the system and then train my colleagues. Now we can use the app to coordinate all our trialing activities.”

Not everything succeeds immediately, however. In Senegal, the research center ISRA and we tried a different approach: trainers asked technicians to fill in workbooks extracted from the FTA. This proved too complex. This year, we are following the Malian training method and using tablets. External partners should soon also be on board in Kenya.

Moving beyond trial management

Trial management is an essential part of the S2B program. As Camille Renou says: “It’s integrated into a whole process of variety advancement which is the core of our approach”. The idea, though, is to go further. SFSA has been working to connect the trial management modules with ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream' elements. Market surveys and Target Product Profiles (TPPs) are examples of the first category; decision-making for variety selection falls into the second area.  

“By facilitating compilation, the app avoids a huge amount of manual data extraction and synthesis”, confirms SFSA Operational Excellence Lead Nathalie Vignaux, who heads FTA development. “That makes it much easier and faster for us to make the right decisions on which seed varieties to advance to the next development stage.” This year, product advancement meetings in Senegal, Mali, and Kenya will for the first time draw on FTA support. S2B staff will use the Product Advancement module to synthesize data and compare trial seeds with local ‘check’ varieties and TPPs.

"We’re now discussing other crucial topics such as market segmentation with partners such as the CGIAR’s Excellence in Breeding program”, Nathalie adds. “When development finishes, we anticipate that the FTA will support most of the steps described in the Guidelines for Variety Commercialization that we’re currently developing.  We also aim to deploy the tool with several partners for their own use.” Abdrahamane Sylla likes that idea: “We’re interested in using the app for all our trials”, says the cowpea expert.

Transferring the tool to partners is SFSA’s next big step. “This will require additional training to handle all the trial management features”, knows Djeneba Diallo, S2B Project Officer in Mali. She has been closely involved in training provision. As a follow-up, Djeneba and colleagues also need to ensure technical support. Pilot use on selected crops is planned at the turn of 2021/2022. The first partners will be IER in Mali and Kenya’s KALRO. SFSA partners at the US-based Soybean Innovation Lab have also shown great interest.

“This experience-sharing will strengthen partners’ capacities, in line with the SFSA mission”, emphasizes Camille Renou. “But it’s also a win-win: their feedback will be an important aspect of improving the tool and adapting it to all users’ needs. Together, we can greatly smooth the path from seed research to smallholders’ hands.”

  • * A “protocol” is a practical guide to running the trial in hand. It contains all the necessary information on set-up, observation, and data collection.  
  • ** Here’s more on Sophie Sinelle’s Kenyan potato inquiries and Field Trial App work.