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Plant Health Clinics: Linking farmers with scientific knowledge

Plant health clinics is a unique initiative tried by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute and the Department of Agricultural Extension to link the coastal farmers with the scientific knowledge. With farmers realizing benefits from this service, there is a growing demand for the services of plant health clinics.

Farmer interacting with a scientist over mobile phone.
Farmer interacting with a scientist over mobile phone.

The agro-ecology of the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh is very fragile, besides being affected by climate change. Within the last ten years, many farmers in Satkhira district have been displaced from agricultural land and crops because of increased salinity.In 2007, the rice crop failed significantly due to erratic weather – a long duration of fog and cold, and incidence of pests and weeds. Therefore, for farmers in Satkhira, climate change is not a future possibility. It is a current livelihood threatening reality.

In 2007, Shushilan, an NGO launched its plant clinic project having piloted earlier climate resilient agricultural practices, such as, the use of saline tolerant rice varieties. However, a fuller agriculture extension support was required to meet the needs of farmers in the entire district.

The objectives of the project was to categorize causes and provide solutions to common agricultural problems, such as saline tolerant rice varieties and to improve agricultural productivity in general, through appropriate practices.

The plant health clinics

The plant health clinics were set up by Shushilan, with the support of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute and the Department of Agricultural Extension. The clinic is equipped with computers, webcams, digital cameras and a digital microscope. The two plant doctors at Sushilan, help the coastal farmers with as much support as they can in terms of education, diagnosis and prescription. They also connect with the scientists when a need arises.

The primary investment to establish the two plant health clinics was around US$6,000. In addition, there is a recurrent cost which amounts to US$1500 per month covering the two plant doctors’ salaries, house rentals, transportation, and fuel and utility bills (including internet connectivity charges). It was planned that the farmers would pay for the services being provided e.g. around US$0.10 for service provided via a mobile or the Internet. However, given the low level of community awareness about ICTs and the need to demonstrate the value of the plant clinic service, it was decided to offer it for free, initially.

Use and impact

The farmers do seem to perceive a value from the service, with group discussions showing that farmers rated positively both the suggestions they have been receiving via the ICT system (such as suggestions about tests to be conducted on their crops? about planting saline tolerant crops? about cultivating different crops such as maize or sunflower), and the prescriptions they have received (i.e. specific guidance on fertilisers or pesticides: which to choose and how much, when and where to apply them.

The plant doctors themselves were able to report project benefits. For example, one of them was asked to identify a new and unknown disease in part of an eggplant crop. He uploaded digital images and sent them to the Global Plant Clinic (GPC). The disease was diagnosed as Tulshipora (the local name), which was correlated with the warmer temperatures that area had been experiencing.

During 2011-12, the local office of the Department of Agricultural Extension reported that for Kaligonj subdistrict, the prescriptive information about treatment of pests and diseases has helped. It was estimated that the loss of production due to these causes had been reduced by at least 20% between 2007 and 2011. Over the same period, crop productivity has also increased with the yield gap (the gap between the actual and the potential output level of crops per hectare) being reduced in 80% of cases. There has also been greater diversification of the crops planted (e.g. use of saline tolerant rice and planting of maize and sunflower), and an increase in crop intensification (the average number of crops planted per year) from 1 to 1.28.

Farmers reported positively on the value of suggestions and prescriptions received from the plant clinic. Farmers appreciated the fast, good quality information and advice which the plant clinic could deliver? particularly relating to pests/disease, new crop varieties, fertilizer/pesticide dosage, and early warning information.

Certainly demand for the plant clinic’s services has been continuously growing. With farmers realizing benefits from this service, it is anticipated that in future, farmers will be willing to make a small payment for the plant clinic services.

Tithe Farhana
E-mail: tithefarhana@gmail.com