Launch of the Push-Pull App – a new way to help African farmers defeat crop pests

A new app has been launched by an international team of scientists including Keele’s Professor Toby Bruce, to support farmers across Africa to use innovative, environmentally friendly techniques for evading crop pests.

African smallholder farmers face major challenges from insect pests such as fall armyworm, and weeds such as striga that can destroy their crops. Fall armyworm is a serious threat to food security and livelihoods and already affects at least 400,000 hectares, causing crop losses worth an estimated $3 billion a year.

But a solution exists - “Push-pull technology”; a novel method of crop management which can massively reduce farmers’ losses from pests and increase their harvest sizes, whilst avoiding the need to use harmful and expensive chemical pesticides.

“Push-Pull technology” is a scientific method of planting crops like maize and sorghum, alongside particular species of forage grasses and legumes that repel pests and supress weeds. It was developed by scientists at ICIPE in Kenya and partners and is designed to protect the plants against devastating pests like the fall armyworm and the striga weed, with the companion plants also improving soil fertility.

But a major challenge is how to communicate advice and information about this to millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, to get as many of them using the technique as possible.

To help address this challenge, a new mobile phone app has been launched by Agape Innovations Ltd, in collaboration a team of scientists from the University of Leeds, University of Keele and icipe.

The app is an impact activity for a larger BBSRC Global Challenges Research Fund project called "Enhancing crop diversity and ecosystem services to promote biological control of fall armyworm in smallholder cropping systems", and also part of a GCRF-funded cluster project "Scaling up Biocontrol Innovations in Africa", which seeks to understand how biocontrol methods have been used across Africa and to encourage their uptake.

Research by the scientists behind the push-pull technique, including Keele’s Professor Toby Bruce, has proven that odours released by the companion plants can effectively repel fall armyworm and protect crops against the pest.

Professor Bruce from Keele University’s School of Life Sciences said: “We are excited to see if this App can serve as a vehicle for taking practical information to the farmer. It is designed to share key details about how to get started with Push-Pull. We hope this will increase the number of farmers taking up this innovative approach that provides real benefits by improving crop protection and food security.”

Early adopter farmers have had great success with this technique, reporting five times less fall armyworm damage and a doubling or even tripling of crop yield, showing the huge potential this has for farmers and crop-producing smallholders. It also reduces the environmental impact of farming by protecting against pests without using pesticides, as well as improving soil quality without inorganic fertilisers.

Principal Investigator Dr Steve Sait, from the University of Leeds’ School of Biology, said: “The Push-Pull method of pest control is decades old and is used successfully by thousands of smallholder farmers across Africa.

“We hope that this collaboration, and this new app, can help us extend knowledge of this technique to potentially millions of other farmers who could be benefitting from it. Compared to chemical pesticides, Push-Pull costs less money to the farmer, results in less damage to their crops, and it avoids harming other insect species that play valuable roles in the ecosystem.”

The app, which has launched this week (Monday, 9th August), has been developed by Agape innovations and is available on Android phones. It has been designed to work on the basic smartphones that are being increasingly used by smallholder farmers in Africa. It gives farmers information they need to get started with Push-Pull farming, and is not only free but 100% available offline, meaning a lack of internet connection in rural regions will not affect its function.

The ultimate goal is to provide a resource for farmers that is informed by science, protects their crops and improves their harvest, which they can access any time of day from anywhere in the world.

Paul Mugisha, CEO of Agape Innovations Ltd said: “With the world going digital and uncertainties like Covid-19 amplifying the challenges of physical interactions, ICT is so vital in today and tomorrow’s agriculture. At Agape, we built the Push-Pull app as a global tool to equip a farmer with all that is needed for a successful push-pull garden. Embedded with audio, visual and graphical expressions we are certain that the Push-Pull app will be relevant to maize and sorghum farmers worldwide for both today and tomorrow in controlling fall armyworm, Striga and Maize stalk borer.”

The app is available to download from the Google Play Store.