Trialing app takes off for scale-up
“Innovate, develop, prove, and hand over for scale-up”: That’s our Foundation’s approach across the board. One recent example is the Field Trial Application (FTA) for seed variety trials. After a seven-year journey, it’s time to move on.
Our Seeds2B (S2B) program started in 2011. It aims to improve smallholders’ access to modern, high-performing varieties that they need. The program spread quickly across Africa; a strong partner network implemented numerous crop trials. This success created a challenge, however: As the work expanded, the S2B team found itself handling dozens of trial sites, hundreds of varieties, and millions of data points.
“It’s hard to use large amounts of data fully when they’re on Excel sheets”, explains S2B Africa Technical Lead Camille Renou. “We clearly needed a digital solution. We tested several commercially available systems, but none completely matched our requirements. So we developed our own.”
A small team started development work in 2016. The tool reached its first stage as a working solution in 2018; S2B staff began using it in Kenya, Senegal, and Mali. “Sustained SFSA investment then enabled us to continuously improve it with new value-added functionalities and better user interfaces”, Camille recounts. As of today, some 100 FTA users have managed field studies of about 20 crops in nine countries. The app helps them select the varieties best suited to the local market and growing conditions.
Agile response to real needs
“Developing the FTA started from several concrete needs”, says Nathalie Vignaux, our Seeds2B Global Project Lead. “We wanted easier data collection and centralized storage, faster reporting, and more robust decision-making.” As a non-profit, the Foundation’s aim was to make the app available free of charge to public sector research in our African and Asian countries of operation. “To cover the costs, we agreed that the developer could commercialize a parallel version for other customers”, Nathalie explains.
The team has continued to improve the FTA. “From the start, we worked with an ‘Agile’ mindset”, Nathalie adds. “We focused on delivering value to the users in incremental steps. That means prioritizing a list of user requirements based on value, selecting the top priorities achievable in a few weeks, making them work in the tool, demonstrating the results, and collecting new requirements.”
The development team is self-organized and composed of the experts needed to develop the features. Recently, for example, users required automatic statistical analysis. To meet this demand, a statistician from Syngenta joined the team. “His free support was critical in taking the app to a new level”, comments Nathalie. “The FTA now lets users validate and analyze their most common trials accurately. That enables faster trial report creation and stronger data interpretation for decision-making.” The results help our S2B team to make the best possible decision on whether to advance a particular variety to the next development stage.
Challenges and mixed feelings
Progress was not all always easy, however. “One major challenge was Covid”, says S2B Project Officer Sophie Sinelle. “For a long time, the pandemic stopped us from training users face-to-face. We had to find other ways to support them and stay connected. We set up a WhatsApp group for quick fixes and created “Open Houses” to communicate changes and collect feedback. Those got us through the crisis, and we finally resumed training this year.”
Success has also attracted interest from several large private and public organizations. “We gently steer the private sector towards the commercial version of the tool”, comments Camille Renou. Public entities will soon be able to benefit from a discount. “We want to catalyze the commercialization of public varieties in Africa and Asia. We are therefore encouraging public partners to use the tool to support a ‘demand-led` approach based on strong trial data.”
The S2B team still has lots of ideas for further FTA improvements. “We continue to listen to the users and involve them as much as possible”, says Camille. “But the Foundation is not aiming to become an IT company, so it’s time to hand full ownership to the developers.” The S2B team will transfer its use and improvement work to QuickTrials. Nathalie Vignaux freely admits that she has mixed feelings. “We spent so many hours nurturing the FTA to become a real asset. It’s hard to let go. But the legal arrangement is a good one. The journey continues!” Digitalization remains a key pillar of our Foundation’s work.
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