In one corner of the busy Wangige market, an agricultural officer converses with an old man. The officer has a pair of scissors on one hand, and a plant on the other. A notebook and a host of other literature fill a small table. A queue starts to form where the extension officer sits with residents holding paper bags. After some time the old man leaves giving way to the next person in the queue who takes a seat. This exercise will be repeat the entire day, it sometimes appear tiresome, as evidenced by the officer’s twitching of the face and the occasional wiping of the sweat and the seemingly tired but patient residents in the queue that has now snaked its way in the market. But it is worth it, for in this makeshift outfit, tonnes of crops have been saved, and yields salvaged, thanks to a noble model christened the plant clinics.
Modeled along the human health concept, the clinics involve a plant doctor, usually a trained agricultural officer from the Ministry of Agriculture, who sets up shop in key target areas like open air markets. Farmers who have problems with their crops bring a sample plant for diagnosis. It is a hospital scenario as the agriculture officer dissects the plant to get to the root course of the problem. The farmer then gets feedback on what to do.
The model introduced in Kenya by UK based Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) in 2012, has been instrumental in averting major catastrophes in farms while boosting yields. In central Kenya plant clinics happen at select days and at select strategic locations like markets to attract more farmers.
Milkah Wanjira a fresh produce farmer had in two harvest seasons agonized about the cause of white marks in her vegetables which has dented the market for his produce. In the harvest season he only managed to harvest 20 kilos from the expected 60. In the subsequent season things took a nasty dip and she could only afford five kilos. “This is despite spending over Sh30,000 in conventional pesticides which I thought would be a solution to whatever was affecting my produce. I have been in the business of farming vegetables for over ten years and I had never seen something like this. I contemplated finally saying goodbye,” she recalled. A friend referred her to the plant clinics. The diagnosis was simple as it was shocking. When the plant doctor took time to analyze the plant sample that Milkah had brought and after questioning Monicah about the infection trend of the vegetables, the doctor concluded that the vegetables were infected by aphids. The small sap sucking insects which are every fresh produce farmer’s worst nightmare burrows into the produce and causes instant damage. For Milkah the recommendation to treat them from the doctor was simple. Spraying wood ash to the vegetables. “When I did, they disappeared once and for all. I couldn’t imagine despite spending thousands of shillings the solution lay in inexpensive pest control method like spraying wood ash,” Milkah said.
Spread across different counties the plant clinics are addressing the yawning deficit between agricultural extension officers and farmer needs. Government has scaled back the hiring of extension officers as it seeks to stem runaway wage bill. Farmers have been left at the mercy of agrochemical companies.
The plant clinics have been farmers’ friend especially in helping them understand changing weather and how to adapt. Emerging diseases and pests occasioned by climate change have been nipped in the bud by the plant doctors key among them Tuta Absoluta in tomatoes and Maize Lethal Necrosis.
“It is a labour of love. We enjoy doing it. The most comforting aspect of this job is when a farmer comes back to thank you for finding a solution to his crop problems. Though modest plant clinics are the sure bet to food security because pests and diseases are one of the greatest drawbacks for farmers costing them up to 40 per cent of their yields,” said Dr. Charles Ngotho a plant doctor. The doctors receive frequent and specialized trainings on various aspects of understanding pest behaviours and detecting plant diseases.
Since the clinics were set up, plant doctors have managed to diagnose over 200 diseases, 350 pests and have attended to more than 200,000 farmers.
The initiative has also led to the launch of a knowledge portal. Available to anyone who is able to access the internet, but particularly aimed at extension workers, government organizations, researchers, and farmers in developing countries, the Plantwise Knowledge Bank provides clear, up-to-date information that can be put into action immediately to diagnose, treat, and prevent plant pests and diseases.
It has been designed to ensure that the information it provides is useful, relevant and applicable. The diagnostic tool enables users to diagnose plant problems based on pictures of symptoms, while country specific home pages mean the information shown is tailored to the user’s location, displaying relevant information on local pests and their treatment. It also offers a range of fact sheets about easily applicable treatments.