August 2016

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In May 2016, AgriNeTT, a research project started by Computer Science lecturers at UWI St. Augustine was recognised at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva. AgriNeTT placed in the top five among a host of international projects in the area of technology and agriculture. This outstanding recognition would not be its last. It’s easy to see why.

AgriNeTT is an archetype for what research can be and the contribution it can make to Caribbean society. Its focus is on food production (one of the pressing issues of our time) but taking a multidisciplinary approach that includes specialists in computer science and agriculture. The project collaborates with organisations and individuals in the wider society and at the same time, provides opportunities for students to gain real-world experience.

“We feel encouraged,” says Dr Margaret Bernard, Project Lead of AgriNeTT, on the recognition that the project has received. “It shows that at the regional and international levels the potential impact of the research is understood”.

Infusing ICT into agriculture

Dr Bernard is surprisingly mellow for the level of responsibility she holds as Lead, among her other duties. Apart from her role as project lead, she is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing and Information and Technology (IT) as well as Deputy Dean of Graduate Studies and Research in the Science and Technology Faculty. She emphasises that though she might be the most recognisable face for AgriNeTT, it is very much a team effort, “Many people have contributed in significant ways to the success of this project”.

Why is AgriNeTT so well-regarded? AgriNeTT is a project that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to develop the agriculture sector and make it more internationally competitive. The project consists of two Open Data Repositories (online resources that collect up-to-date information on production and topographical aspects of local agriculture) and four mobile applications for farmers.

The apps provide farmers tools for information on crop prices (AgriPrice), record keeping (AgriExpense), land and soil (AgriMaps) and crop pest diagnosis (AgriDiagnose). Of the four, only AgriDiagnose is still in development, the others are available for download and use at the Google Play app store.

Collectively, AgriNeTT provides incredibly powerful tools for farmers as well as policymakers and agriculture sector players.

Dr Bernard gave the example of AgriExpense:

“At present, many farmers don’t keep proper records. They don’t track their expenses and tie them into revenue and profit. With a tool like AgriExpense they can record and use the data like any business. This can help them in getting loans, crop insurance and private sector investment. We don’t have these things because we don’t have the hard data”.

And the data itself, collected on the open source platforms, could be of immense value to the sector when crafting policy or in dealing with the export requirements of other nations.

Team power

Because AgriNeTT is an effective solution for the issue of food security, it makes sense that it would receive the recognition it has. The project was selected at the 2016 WSIS because it falls in line with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number 2, “No Hunger”. WSIS is hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN’s special agency for ICT.

This year, AgriNeTT was also given the FRIDA Award (which recognises innovative practices that further the development of Latin America and the Caribbean) by LACNIC, the region’s Internet registry. In Trinidad and Tobago, AgriNeTT won a UWI-NGC award for Best Research Team – Encouraging Multidisciplinary Research.

Dr Bernard says the projects multidisciplinary and collaborative approach is one of its greatest strengths. Computer Science and members of the Agriculture Faculty worked closely on the project and project teams partnered with organisations such as the Ministry of Food production, NAMDEVCO, CARDI and many others.

“One of the big things for the University that has come out of this project is the extent of collaboration we have been able to forward,” she said.

That includes students. Throughout the project’s life span, AgriNeTT has employed students on short contracts, providing them with mentorship and the opportunity to work on an actual and large-scale project.

The future of Caribbean e-agriculture

AgriNeTT does however, have challenges. For the project to move from innovation to game-changer it must become adopted by the people it was designed for, the farmers. And though it would seem that the benefits of the technology would make them eager to do so, it’s not so simple.

“You really are looking at a lifestyle change for them,” Dr Bernard says. “They have been practising farming in a certain way for the last 40 years. To change that pattern is not easy”.

Focus groups, meetings and “hand-holding” exercises have all been part of the AgriNeTT outreach to farmers. In addition, they have concentrated their efforts on the younger generation, as well as agricultural extension officers, who they hope will be technology ambassadors.

Dr Bernard acknowledges that adoption is the major challenge and should be the focus of the project’s next phase but there is one major issue – funding. AgriNeTT was a recipient of a UWI TT Research and Development Impact Fund award, a three-year grant for projects with a high potential for a positive impact on society. That three-year period has now ended and the project must find new funding to continue. At present, the team is seeking new sources.

For any parties seeking viable solutions for the regional agriculture AgriNeTT seems a smart investment. In fact, the project has already moved beyond T&T. Presently, members of the team are working with the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture on an AgriMaps app that is specific to the island. And beyond AgriNeTT, the Computing and IT Department is working with CARDI on two region-wide agriculture projects.

This is perhaps AgriNeTT’s greatest accomplishment, unleashing the potential of technology on Caribbean farming. The door for ICT innovation in agriculture has been opened. As the Caribbean moves forward it may one day look back at the contribution of this seminal research project.

Margaret Bernard (Dr)
Team Leader
Carlisle Pemberton (Prof)
Agriculture Expert
Patrick Hosein (Prof)
Open Data Team Lead
Wayne Goodridge (Dr)
Pest Detection Team Lead
Rene Jordan (Dr)
GIS Application Team Lead
Gaius Eudoxie (Dr)
Agriculture Expert
Kyle E. Defreitas
Software Developer
Kiran Maharaj
Software Developer
Omaira Avila Rostant
Administrative Coordinator
Terrence Heywood
Farming Community Representative
Shamin Renwick Senior Librarian