PhotosynQ in the news: Malawi

This is a nice story about the potential for collaborative plant research in Malawi, our partners, and the kinds of connections that form in large open research groups.

link: https://prl.natsci.msu.edu/news-and-events/news/photosynq-helping-malawian-farmers-increase-yields/

MultispeQ in Malawi

As the development team focuses on manufacturing the MultispeQ v1.0, we’ll have a series of articles from project partners and developers we hope you find interesting. We’ve had a great response to the pre-release, so thanks to everyone! – Greg

malawi multispeq users
(left) Masters student Hellen Mwale and Kareem Longwe practice data collection with the MultispeQ to get ready for data collection on FRN’s in Central Malawi. (right) Frank Mnthambala and Margaret Chiipanthenga collect data on soybeans in a greenhouse in Bvumbwe, Malawi to identify drought tolerant cultivars.

Over the past year we have partnered with a number of researchers in Malawi who have collected over 30,000 measurements on 15 different projects using PhotosynQ. Our partners in Malawi include researchers from the Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), Lilongwe University of Agricultural Research Services (LUANAR), and a private seed company (Global Seeds). I just got back from 2 weeks in Malawi meeting with them and getting their feedback on PhotosynQ.

Access to high quality laboratory equipment is lacking in Malawi, so researchers are very excited about what information MultispeQ can provide to them. In many cases, field based plant breeding and cropping systems research has been limited to data that can be recorded with a scale and tape measure. With PhotosynQ, they can see beyond what happened (e.g. how the crop yielded) and can start to understand the reasons why crops performed the way they did (e.g. how plants regulated photosynthesis to adapt to their conditions).

Despite a lot of enthusiasm, there are some real challenges that need to be overcome to collect quality data. Internet infrastructure in Malawi is very poor and the internet is often too slow to work effectively on-line or doesn’t work at all. This makes it difficult for users to create projects and analyze results. But it also means that users don’t update their mobile app very often. So they may still be trying to work around bugs in an older version of the app that we have already fixed in a newer release.

Another challenge to using PhotosynQ in Malawi is frequent ‘brown-outs.’ Partners can’t count on the electricity being on when they need to recharge their phones or MultispeQ batteries. Some partners in Malawi have responded by using ‘power banks.’ A power bank is a small extra battery that can hold enough charge to recharge your phone 2-3x. They will plug it right into their phone or tablet’s usb port in the field and recharge their mobile device while taking measurements. It’s one more thing to hold onto in the field, but it solves a problem.

malawi battery pack
A student uses a power bank to keep his mobile device working in the field.

This coming year our partners have even more interesting projects planned. Everything from variety trials of soybean, sweet potato, maize, common beans, and pigeonpea to studies analyzing the effects of cropping systems on crop performance (click here to see a list of existing projects + data). These projects will take place on research stations and smallholder farms all around Malawi.

Two Master’s students from LUANAR will be using PhotosynQ on Farm Research Networks (FRN’s) to assess how different legume-based cropping systems can increase production on smallholder farms. FRN’s are research trials that are located on smallholder farms, instead of research stations, and are managed by the farmers themselves. As such, they paint a much more accurate picture of how ‘new’ cropping systems affect crop production on smallholder farmers. What’s really exciting is that these 2 students will be collecting data on FRN’s that include over 300 farms in 3 districts in Malawi. Even if they only collect PhotosynQ data on 1/3 of the farms, it will be the largest on-farm data collection using PhotosynQ to date! And it will take place with poor internet connectivity and frequent power outages!

More Malawi Projects

Dan TerAvest