Armed with nothing but umbrellas and their mobile devices, a group of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) officers from different countries of the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region disembark from a bus in Gakenke, Rulindo district in Northern Rwanda. They have a date with farmers, and the April showers will not prevent them from keeping it. On field visit days like this, they would normally be carrying notebooks, sheets of papers mounted on a clipboards, pens and/or pencils and erasers. But this time, all that package is replaced by a single mobile device – a tablet.
In the group is Ignatius Abaijuka who works as a Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation Specialist for HarvestPlus, and is based in Uganda. He supports the HarvestPlus’ partners in planning, monitoring and evaluating orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) projects in 25 districts of Uganda. Along with M&E staff from other countries, Abaijuka is here to practice how Open Data Kit (ODK), a free open-source set of tools, that are loaded in his mobile device can be used to collect data on sweetpotato root yield in a decentralised vine multipliers’ (DVMs) field and to conduct many of the routine monitoring activities.
Their first stop is in Jeanne Mukasine’s farm. Mukasine has been a sweetpotato producer for more than 15 years. She sells sweetpotato vines to institutional buyers like the International Potato Center and IMBARAGA, and the roots to Sina Gerard, an agro-processing company in Rwanda. One of the visitors interviews Mukasine while Ignatius and the colleague follow attentively and use the pre-designed forms in their mobile devices to capture her demographic, plot and sweetpotato crop information. The short visit captures the basic crop performance monitoring information that an M&E officer would be interested in. They thank Mukasine for her time and wish well in her sweetpotato vine and root sales business.
Next, the group moves to Jean Bosco’s farm, located a short distance away from Jeanne’s. The specific aim of the visit is to learn how to collect yield data using ODK. “He had planted the Kabode variety of OFSP. We randomly selected a 3m x 2m plot from his field. I personally participated in marking that area and helped in harvesting one section,” recalls Abaijuka.
This method is called crop cut. The 3m x 2m plot is randomly selected using a very simple technique: walking halfway down length on the left side of the plot, turning right, and then walking one-third inside, all in a straight line. A crop cut is normally used for collecting data on root and vine yield.
For Abaijuka, the crop cut method is the biggest lesson of the day. And he would not let “officer” title overshadow his sweetpotato farming experience. In no time, he gets down to the business of harvesting the roots, alongside the farmer, while collecting the vines into a pile. “When you see a crack on the surface, there must be a root below,” he says. And using this simple cue he pulls up root after root of OFSP, without a hoe or harvesting tool, just by hand – being helped soft ground from previous night’s rains.
Back to the real business, Abaijuka joins his colleagues in counting, weighing and recording the vine and root data. The data is, again, captured using the mobile device in a pre-designed ODK form. He explains that because sweetpotato is harvested piecemeal in most places, it is often difficult to estimate yield. Furthermore in his experience, people tend to choose the best portion of the field when collecting yield data. “Today, I used this method personally and appreciated how useful it can be in collecting credible production and area data, and in estimating sweetpotato vine and root yield. The way it is done reduces bias. “Following what we were taught, and the random selection of the area harvested, make me confident that the yield we got represents the yield of the whole field,” he says.
ODK: an open-source suite of tools for collecting and managing data
The use of ODK was first piloted in 2014 in sweetpotato by Luka Wanjohi, who is in charge of data management for the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) project led by the International Potato Center. It provides cost-effective and easy to use, modify and scale-up method of field data collection. Users can build data collection forms, collect data on mobile devices and send it to a server. The collected data can then be aggregated and then extracted and used it in different formats, as needed.
Luka and a working group of the MLE CoP have developed and piloted modules that can be adopted for use by different projects, including those used by Abaijuka and his group to monitor Jane’s crop performance and collect yield data from Jean’s sweetpotato plot. Following the initial pilots, ODK is currently being used to register and monitor DVMs in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. Indeed, in 2015, 568 DVMs (411 male, 141 female and 16 groups) were registered in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique and Malawi using this method. Today, the contact details of DVMs from nine SSA countries are available on the Sweetpotato Knowledge Portal making it easier for farmers with access to internet and development agencies to find the nearest source of quality sweetpotato vines. This registration process, and subsequent uploading DVM data onto the Portal, to expand business opportunities for the vine multipliers. They are also expected to spur the creation of DVM business enterprise in rural farming communities.
Luka acknowledges that training data collectors to use smart phones and tablets requires time, and sometimes, lack of electricity and high internet costs may pose some challenges. However, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. “The best thing about ODK is that it increases accuracy of the data collected and it gives the option to collect and store multiple data types in a single record,” Wanjohi says. Other advantages of using such electronic data capture are the timeliness of sharing data and results with project managers. There is also the reduced burden of walking around the fields with a package comprising notebooks, datasheets, clipboards and pens/pencils and, the all so common risks of lists datasheets.
Tracking progress on the effective production and diversified use of sweetpotato
Beyond equipping the participants with such practical skills on the use of ODK for routine monitoring and yield data collection, the field trip is part of a greater agenda, to harmonize data collection strategies and tools across all sweetpotato projects in the SSA region. This agenda is being led by the Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation Community of Practice (MLE CoP), supported by the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative (SPHI). The SPHI is a coalition of partners that have made a voluntary commitment towards achieving a unified goal of improving diet quality by 20% and crop incomes by 15% among beneficiary households in the targeted countries. To monitor progress, they have agreed to share data and compile the annual Status of Sweetpotato Report. The inclusion of common indicators, and the use of similar tools is expected to facilitate the analysis and collation of this data.
Clesensio Tizikara, the M&E Specialist at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa is a member of the CoP. According to him, these efforts to harmonize data are in line with the regional agricultural research agenda. He explains that the Mutual Accountability Framework for the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) was meant to, among other things, enable tracking of progress by use of a set of standard indicators. “Reporting on CAADP to the African Heads of State determines the funding agenda and budget allocations, yet there is not enough being presented on the impact of agricultural research. The work being done by the MLE CoP will greatly help in coming up with this kind of evidence for OFSP,” he says.
For members of the MLE CoP like Abaijuka, Tizikara and the group, this field visit is an opportunity to identify challenges associated with implementing a system such as ODK and finding ways to mitigate them. It’s where they ask all kinds of questions they have about the method. And judging by the participation of Abaijuka’s group during this field trip, many lessons were learned. The MLE COP working group plans to provide support to members to adapt the ODK tools to their specific country contexts and use them for data collection going forward.