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.


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

Updates: Devices available and progress during Beta

Devices Available!

10 devices without CO2 sensors (so no soil respiration measurements) are available on (  We have quite a few more in the works, so if you miss this batch you can catch the next.

New ways to get a MultispeQ


PhotosynQ Share

We’ve learned two important things so far in the Beta: 1) We suck at making MultispeQ devices quickly and 2) Most people just need a device for a short time (a month or so).  So we decided to make a lending library for MultispeQs.  Just click on this link, fill out the form, and we’ll let you know if and when we can get you a device.

Mobile Phenotyping Group

Also, we started a crew of fearless data collectors to work with partners here at Michigan State University.  We call these guys the Mobile Phenotyping Group.  We’re working with folks like Marty Chilvers on pest management in corn, soybeans, and wheat, Jim Kelly on selection of the common bean, and a whole bunch of other folks on everything from photosynthesis research to forest management.  If you are at Michigan State and you’d like our help designing, implementing, and analyzing data collected using the MultispeQ please go apply here.

Project highlights

We realize that the site is a bit messy, and sometimes it’s hard to find really interesting projects, so I thought I’d list a few to check out.  Click on ‘dashboard’ to see the raw data and play with it, or the discussion button to see what people have been saying about the project.

Nitrogen Management in CA systems in Malawi (Plant) 11. – This was data collected in Malawi comparing 5 different crop rotation systems with some surprising results (farmer recommendations on which treatment is optimal would NOT be the same for each location!) .  If you click on ‘dashboard’ and map you can see the 3 site’s where the data were collected from.

Testing Parents for Genetic Variation -Jared Crain from Kansas State University was able to identify very small (<3%) differences in photosynthetic efficiency of photosystem 2 between two elite wheat lines.

MSU’s Sonya Lawrence is having her summer biology students create projects – here’s a few:

BS 172 US15 Photosynthetic Activity – [Beta]
Tree Age influence on Photosynthetic rates. – [Beta]
Sugar Tyme Efficiency Sum 15 – [Beta]
I’m going to improve the quality of the projects and the results pages, so keep an eye out for more highlighted projects in the future.

Improvements to Forum

The website forum has been updated, and many problems are now fixed.  You can communicate with other collaborators within your project using the forum, get tech support (we trawl the tech support forum so you’ll get an answer as fast or faster than emailing me directly!) or find others with similar interests.  You can adjust your forum settings in the “Manage Subscriptions” part of your user profile page (see image below).



Inline image 1
Go to your user profile and click Manage Subscriptions to join a forum. Any projects you join or create you are automatically included in the forum.
Screenshot from 2015-06-08 08:12:35
Forums are located in the Forums tab.

v1.0 update

We are furiously working on the next version of the MultispeQ, v1.0.  We’re getting the first test PCBs out soon, and the case is being redesigned with some important improvements like integrated cuvette measurements (so no separate cuvette holder to install) and integrated leaf thickness sensor and leaf temperature.  At some point in the next 3 months, we’ll give a more significant update on the features of this next version, so stay tuned.