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GCFSI Innovators Develop Virtual Game to Benefit Maize Farmers

Published: Tuesday, 07 Feb 2017
Author: Ali Hussain
Department: Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

FarmVille, a farming simulation game, is among the most popular social networking games ever launched. Since its 2009 debut on Facebook, the virtual game has been played by over 400 million users in 215 counties. Ever wondered how a game like FarmVille could actually be used to improve agriculture? That was the challenge accepted by two researchers, Emilia Tjernstrom, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Travis Lybbert, of the University of California-Davis.

Unlike flipping on the hose or starting the sprinklers, most African farmers rely on unpredictable rain to irrigate food crops. In such variable conditions, learning about the benefits of improved maize varieties or fertilizer is costly and risky. And, when farmers' livelihoods depend on the success of their crop, experimentation is curtailed.

Seeking a comparatively low-risk method to assist farmers in selecting best practices, Tjernstrom and Lybbert leveraged a Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI) grant to develop Mahindi Master, a game-like mobile app inspired by FarmVille.

Translated from Swahili to English as "Maize" Master, the game allows users to virtually experiment with different fertilizers, seeds, and other agricultural inputs to predict how each would likely affect crop yields on the farmer's particular plot. By populating a maize crop model with real world data from soil samples, the app calibrates the interactions of inputs that affect growth, particularly fertilizer and weather conditions. After running through multiple growing scenarios as part of the game, the user will see which combination of inputs was most fruitful for yield.

As players proceed through the different modules of the game, they can select from three different fertilizers – diamonium phosphate (DAP), calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), or lime – to see how their maize harvest is expected to respond to each. Reflecting on the pretesting conducted in Rongo, Kenya, Tjernstrom said, "Farmers felt that the app was conducive to learning about fertilizer and expressed a desire to play the game again once it was calibrated to their plot's soil characteristics. (We) received valuable feedback on the animations, which will enable us to adjust certain colors of the seeds and fertilizers to reflect their actual appearance in Western Kenya, and to present the weather scenarios in a clearer way."

Further pilot testing is scheduled to occur in Kenya this month, and, to encourage participation by the target audience, the research team will provide incentive in the form of valuable resources for farmers to use in the upcoming growing season.

"After farmers complete their module on the app, they will be given a cash allowance and a menu of agro-inputs, such as seeds and fertilizer. They will identify a demo plot of specific dimensions and then purchase the inputs they would like to use for the demo plot," said Lybbert, noting that the materials will later be delivered to the actual demo plot, which will be managed by the farmer as part of the pilot test.

"By (evaluating) their input choices from the menu, we'll be able to assess how much they trust what they have learned. It's innovative in the sense that it turns agricultural extension into an interactive, customized experience. One of the underlying principles is that people learn best when they actively seek to understand something new or more deeply. By gamifying farming in a way that is salient to them, the app aims to encourage farmers to discover, on their own, how inputs affect productivity."