Pieter Pypers, David Ngome, Theresa Ampadu-Boakye, Christine Kreye, Meklit Chernet, Guillaume Ezui, Stefan Hauser, Friday Ekeleme, Freddy Baijukya, Thompson Ogunsanmi, Mwantumu Omari, Sammy Barasa, Turry Ouma, Ademola Adebiyi, Saburi Adekunbi, Godwin Atser, Abubakari Mzanda, Ally Ngádoa, Evelyne Omotolani, Esther Kimatu, Toyo Oluwafisayomi, and Hadi Rashidi

African smallholder farmers face low productivity because they lack reliable agronomic recommendations tailored to their local conditions. For example, judging the correct quantity of fertilizer requires knowing the fertilizer cost and crop produce prices, expected weather, cropping history, and soil conditions.

Crop responses to fertilizer may differ between the fields of two neighbors, as much as they can vary between regions or countries because of differences in past soil fertility management. Prices of crop produce vary between areas depending on the proximity and type of market. As a result, farmers are often unable to judge if an investment is worthwhile before trying it.

Smallholder cassava growers now have real prospects through AKILIMO, an advisory service developed by the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative (ACAI) and scaled through a Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) research programfunded scaling grant. AKILIMO offers tailored recommendations on different agronomic operations, maximizing returns on investment within a user-defined budget.

These cover:
Fertilizer recommendations for cassava growers tailored to local soil conditions and crop calendars for sustainable cassava intensification Advice on appropriate fertilizer blends for cassava-producing geographical areas based on soil types and nutrient deficiencies, cost, and potential demand for the fertilizer industry.

Advice on best planting practices with a focus on tillage and weed control to guide farmers to choose the most cost- and labor-effective practices.

Intensification options for cassava intercropping systems, including recommendations on planting density and arrangement and best suited fertilizer rates for common intercrops.

Planting and harvest schedules considering local weather to optimize the year-round supply of cassava for the processing industry Agronomic practices to maximize root starch content for cassava growers supplying roots to the processing industry.

AKILIMO was co-created by a partnership led by IITA, including national and international research institutes and universities, and development partners from the public and private sectors. Scaling partners defined upfront use cases and specified their particular needs for agronomy products. They were fully involved in an inclusive stepwise process to develop tools, hosting on-farm experiments, evaluating early prototypes, and coordinating field exercises to validate the recommendations. Partners also co-designed all training and promotion materials. All AKILIMO products are owned by the partnership. Today, over 30 partners in Nigeria and

Tanzania have fully integrated AKILIMO in their dissemination strategies and operations.

In February 2021, AKILIMO recorded over 170,000 registered users in Nigeria and Tanzania. Users mostly requested advice on best planting practices, including tillage and weed control and customized fertilizer recommendations. We recorded high retention, with 69% of users continuing to use the tools and requesting recommendations again after the initial exposure. Over 75% of users applied recommendations at least partially on their farms. Based on observed yield responses and price records, we calculated that users increased their income by US$120 per household per year on average. Increased profits are most often obtained through investments resulting in increased root yields, smarter decision making, reduced investment costs, market trendmonitoring, and harvesting at opportune times to obtain higher prices for the root produce.

AKILIMO leverages over 50,000 yield measurements from experiments carried out in the fields of over 20,000 farmers combined with satellite-based weather information and digital soil maps and user-provided input on crop history to calculate recommendations. AKILIMO’s modeling framework combines machine learning with state-of-the-art crop models, geospatial statistics, and economic optimization algorithms to provide advice that maximizes net returns on investments.

is available in various formats. An app for android is freely available on the Google Play Store. Further, cassava growers can access the recommendations for free through IVR on VIAMO’s 321 short code service and by interactive SMS on Arifu’s chatbot. Finally, on the AKILIMO website (www.akilimo. org), simplified printable decision guides are available, where farmers can look up recommendations in maps and tables and do the calculations in simple worksheets.

All interfaces went through a development process with the help of partners and extension workers to ensure a positive user experience. Modifications and simplifications were made for each interface to balance precision with end users’ capabilities and preferences. Learning journeys were implemented and tested with farmers to ensure the advice is provided in an intuitive way that aligns with farmers’ needs.

Participatory validation and legacy
Validation exercises were carried out in 2019 and 2020. Over 5,000 farmer volunteers compared the AKILIMO recommendations against their current practice in small side-by-side plots on their farm. Participants were supported by trained extension workers within partners’ dissemination network, without the direct involvement of researchers. Between 60% and 95% recorded profitable increases in root yield, while less than 10% recorded a loss in revenue. Data collected enabled further improvements to the recommendation framework and provided insights into enhancing the tool interfaces.

Many of the lessons learned in AKILIMO’s development process are relevant to other agronomy-at-scale projects. Already the approaches used to develop fertilizer recommendations are being adapted to potato for the Rwandan highlands by the International Potato Center (CIP). Critical for success was a digital data collection system that enables all data to be available for analysis within 24 hours after collection.

Including scaling partners through an inclusive co-creation process is critical to generate trust and ownership, fast-track integration into partners’ operation, and engender learning along the way. In the future, the Excellence in Agronomy 2030 Initiative will be an important platform to advance the tools and approaches used by AKILIMO and make these available to the wider digital agronomy community.