The general consensus among agricultural stakeholders is that smallholder farmers need to become more productive and profitable on a sustainable basis. Unmanned aerial system (UAS) – or drone-based system – services can contribute towards these goals by bringing some of the tools of digital agriculture to agribusiness enterprises, including large and medium-scale holdings, and associations of small-scale farmers growing the same crop on contiguous areas.
In Africa, UAS services can be described as nascent and are usually provided by entrepreneurs who invest in the equipment and necessary skills to use the technology, and go on to conduct or sub-contract data analysis, interpret the findings and advise customers. Cutting edge use of specially designed drones allows the devices to be used for agrochemical application on crops.
Recognising the opportunities provided by UAS, CTA has been partnering with leading private sector operators in Africa since 2017. Their work has assisted information and communications technology (ICT) start-ups in over 21 African countries to acquire the capacities required to deliver UAS services. CTA has organised a series of activities including training on the operations of drones mounted with multispectral sensors, understanding of drone safety, privacy principles and regulations, management and processing of remotely-sensed data, development of UAS business plans, and networking opportunities. During 2018-19, CTA upscaled its activities to increase the number of countries and UAS operators covered across Africa. Via scientific, on-site research, CTA has also invested resources accordingly to assess social acceptance of the technology and its costs and benefits. These projects are framed within a larger intervention known as Transforming Africa’s Agriculture: Eyes in the Sky, Smart Techs on the Ground.
UAS and UAV technologies have been recognised as a potential solution for on-farm pest control through pesticide application, which could be of particular importance for fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) (FAW) invasions in Africa. FAW has continued to threaten food security in a wide range of African countries, including Ghana since its emergence in 2016.
Through agencies including the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and the Plant Protection and Regulatory Services Directorate (PPRSD), the Government of Ghana, alongside smallholder farmers, is applying several management strategies including biological, chemical, cultural and traditional control methods. The methods include handpicking and crushing of FAW, intercropping maize with plants that could repel FAW, and avoiding planting of crops that could serve as an alternative host to FAW. However, most of these control methods are ineffective due to various factors, such as FAW’s feeding behaviour and life cycle (which is mostly nocturnal), and a lack of compatible pesticides and application methods. There is, therefore, a need to adopt technologies that could be congruent with the feeding behaviour and other characteristics of FAW. In this context, the potential use of new application technologies such as UAVs seems promising. However, a number of actions have to be put in place prior to upscaling such technologies to commercial agribusiness enterprises and smallholder farmers within the maize value chain.
- Farmers have appreciable knowledge of FAW (known locally as Zunzuya, meaning ‘worms’), and can detect the presence of these pests on their farms based on characteristic signs they have identified with the feeding habits of the pest;
- Farmers mainly use agrochemicals to control FAW and in some cases, local mixtures and/or bio-pesticides, but never integrated pest management (IPM);
- Farmers prefer using synthetic pesticides over biological control methods, bio-pesticides, chemical mixtures, cultural practices and IPM to control FAW;
- Few farmers had seen or heard of drone technology applications or had participated in agricultural programmes using drone technology before this study. Videos and live drone operations to apply pesticides on maize fields enabled the farmers to see and describe the operation of drones and their separate parts, including the propellers/wings, the pesticide tank/container, discharging nozzles and the remote control used by the pilot;
- Farmers perceived a high benefit of using drones to control FAW when compared to the traditional pesticide knapsack method. They indicated that drones could apply pesticides more accurately to kill the FAW caterpillar, with little or no chemical wastage – and at speed, making the use of drones effective, simple and efficient;
- The farmers considered knapsacks to be more affordable and readily available than the drone technology, but recognised the higher risks of chemical spillage to the sprayer when carrying and pumping the knapsacks, and also the increased energy and time taken in manually covering an entire field when using the knapsack;
- Wide variations in maize productivity were recorded over the years across the study sites, with reductions attributed to FAW invasions;
- No significant differences were found across the study sites in terms of the total variable costs, total cost, total revenue, gross margin and benefit-cost ratio between the control, drone and knapsack plots, but there were wide variations among them. The return on investments were also different across the study districts regarding knapsack and drone technology usage;
- The behavioural intention of farmers to use drone technology for FAW control can be predicted based on five variables, namely: attitude towards use of the digital technology, result demonstrability, perceived usefulness, perceived enjoyment, and voluntariness. Attitude towards the use of drone technology was the best predictor of the farmers’ intention to use the technology for FAW control;
- An overwhelming majority of the farmers were willing to pay for FAW control drone services in the study area.