Malawi: IBM® and Heifer International Empowering Malawian Farmers With Smart Farming Technology Through Openharvest App

OpenHarvest, a digital application that was developed by one of the worlds technology company, IBM® — in collaboration with global non-profit Heifer International — has proved successful for over 200 smallholder farmers in Mchinji District to

Developed through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, the OpenHarvest app is set to empower more Malawian smallholder farmers through technology and a community ecosystem.

A statement from the two institutions, says Malawian farmers used to rely on predictable rain seasons but that is steadily shifting due to climate change and when the rainy season arrives later than expected, many still follow outdated agronomy practices that may lead them to plant too early or too late.

The project took cognizance that Malawi is landlocked country and home to rich, arable land and a subtropical climate suitable for farming.

“As a result, over 80% of the population is employed in agriculture, and their livelihood revolves around alternating rainy and dry seasons that dictate how the year’s planting, growing and harvesting will unfold.

“Smallholder farmers lack access to hyperlocal weather forecasting and data that can help increase their crops’ chances of success, which jeopardizes the productivity and profitability of their season.

“Their challenges are compounded further by inherent and unavoidable farming risks, such as pests, contamination and natural disasters.”

Thus it was considered that with access to advanced technology, smart farming recommendations and specialized weather forecasts, farmers can build resilient and flexible operations that can help maximize their fields’ productive potential.

OpenHarvest was devised to close the digital divide that they were challenged with. It is an open source platform with a mobile application that expands access to visual agricultural data, delivers specialized recommendations to farmers through AI and climate modelling, and enables better farm and field management.

“The OpenHarvest model assigns each participating farmer’s field a set of latitude-longitude points that trigger comprehensive recommendations according to local weather and crop growth stages.

“Additionally, it monitors soil composition data (nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrient levels) to identify how fertilizers should be applied.”

The statement further says right from the beginning, Heifer International and IBM sought to develop a low-cost tool that maximizes output.

“A serverless architecture was ideal to keep infrastructure costs to a minimum under a ‘pay-per-use’ model. IBM Cloud Code Engine allowed IBM developers to reduce time to deployment and focus on core objectives for Heifer International and the farms at the heart of the project — namely, being cost-effective, scalable and reliable.

“Historically, Malawian farmers have relied on generalized weather information transmitted via radio to make operational decisions. Most farmers do not own smartphones, so Heifer International and IBM had to find an information-sharing method that could transmit precise crop and soil management recommendations generated by the OpenHarvest model, while remaining accessible and affordable to the end user. The solution was an SMS text message.

“IBM Consulting also brought their sustainability experience to the pilot deployment of the OpenHarvest solution, joining a project ecosystem that included Heifer International’s community facilitators, volunteers from a local university in Malawi and smallholder farmers.

“It was crucial to support farmers not only with smart technology, but with a network of hands-on experts to help build trust and implement solutions.”

Taking cognizance that climate change is not the only risk that smallholder farmers encounter in Malawi, whose economy relies on agriculture, “farmers have limited access to affordable credit or competitive markets”.

“The cycle of poverty and lack of access to capital have historically pushed farmers in Malawi to purchase cheaper supplies (like recycled seed) which can result in low yields and subpar crops.

“For this reason, access to affordable capital can be an essential component to promote environmentally resilient practices and drive behavioural change.

“IBM and Heifer International saw an opportunity to incentivize farmers to adopt best agricultural practices through a digital extension solution, while simultaneously facilitating connections to access finance and the formal market.

“Ultimately, the OpenHarvest platform is differentiated by this structure, which encourages farmers to embrace digital technology and retain new farming practices — leading to long-term profitability and success in a changing environment and economy.