Science - February 12, 2016

Citizen science in Africa

Roelof Kleis,Roelof Kleis

It’s already a familiar concept in the west: members of the general public recording observations for scientific purposes. But is it feasible in Africa? Could agriculture and health care benefit from mobile platforms and social media? Ten Wageningen PhD researchers are going to give it a try.

They all looked a little diffident and uneasy last week, gathered in a small room in the Leeuwenborch. Ten brand new African PhD candidates flanked by a posse of supervisors. Ready to spend a day getting to know each other and exploring the challenge they will be tackling together: Evoca.

Evoca stands for environmental virtual observatories for connective action. In effect a form of citizen science, not unlike the ‘mosquito radar’ well-known in the Netherlands, but this time in Africa. But there is more to Evoca than citizen science, explains project leader Cees Leeuwis, professor of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation. ‘Garnering information through mobile platforms is just one side of the story. Then you need to do something useful with it too, and arrive at new forms of collective decisionmaking. That requires an understanding of communication and socio-political processes because sharing and interpreting information can often be sensitive.’

Sources of infection

Evoca aims to use citizen science to improve farming and healthcare in Africa. ‘A potato farmer who can’t locate the sources of the potato blight Phytophthora can’t take action,’ explains Leeuwis. ‘Setting up good information systems is too costly for the government. If farmers can do it themselves, it opens up new possibilities.’

The project came into existence two years ago at a research day held by the three chair groups in the department of Communication, Philosophy and Technology. ‘Our idea was to start a joint Inref programme,’ says Leeuwis. Inref is the Wageningen University fund that supports interdisciplinary research by PhD candidates in developing countries. A subject was soon identified: the digital communication revolution in Africa. A revolution that is in full swing, says Leeuwis. ‘Take payment systems, for instance. The average African doesn’t have a bank account like we do. You pay cash down. The rise of the mobile phone has changed that utterly. Nowadays you pay using your phone credit. Buying and selling with telephone credit. That is having a huge impact on the economy.’


Evoca includes five different projects all revolving around collecting up-to-date data and translating that information into concrete action and decisions. Decisions that will improve potato farming in Ethiopia (see box) or cocoa production and irrigation in Ghana. Information which makes it possible to fight malaria in Rwanda more effectively or to protect Kenya’s livestock and wildlife better against tick-borne diseases. Two PhD candidates will be attached to each project, each working from a different perspective. Leeuwis: ‘There is a technical and a social side to each project. So we have created teams led by two supervisors: one coming from the social angle and one coming from the natural sciences angle.’

What Evoca will deliver beyond ten theses is not clear beforehand. That is what makes innovation exciting, says Leeuwis. ‘That is a kind of Darwinist process. You try things out and you have to accept that eight out of ten of them won’t work. The aim is to create as many successes as possible which will have a social impact too.’

Mosquito radar in Rwanda


The battle against malaria in Rwanda is currently largely fought through the use of insecticides and impregnated bed nets in the home. ‘And the government has achieved a lot that way,’ says entomologist Sander Koenraadt. ‘But malaria has not been eradicated yet. In fact we’ve seen a rise in the number of cases in recent years.’ The Evoca project wants to use an African version of the mosquito radar used in the Netherlands to intensify the fight.

The research area in the south of Rwanda includes 35 villages with about 40,000 inhabitants between them. Wageningen and three other universities have been working on combatting malaria there for four years now. ‘We work on the principle that we can only eradicate malaria if the local people are prepared to collaborate.’ That approach led to the formation of ‘community malaria action teams’ which organize meetings and small-scale campaigns targeting malaria. The mosquito radar can take this approach a step further, Koenraadt believes. ‘The villages currently operate independently of each other. People don’t know what’s going on in the other villages and they want to exchange information. A citizen science approach can facilitate that.’

Besides this social role, the mosquito radar should also generate some new entomological knowledge. Koenraadt: ‘Mosquitoes are biting earlier in the day and more often out of doors. That is an effect of measures to combat malaria. If people sleep under nets the mosquitoes don’t get a chance at night. The ones that bite earlier survive. If there is a genetic component to that, you get selection pressure. The mosquito radar is a way of monitoring such changes.’

Mobile technology against Phytophthora


East Africa is the potato store of Africa: millions of small farmers grow potatoes there. But the harvests are small, says professor of Crop Physiology Paul Struik, supervisor of Evoca’s potato project in Ethiopia. That is due to the effects of disease. Phytophthora (potato blight) and brown rot are the biggest culprits.

You can spray potato crops against Phytophthora, explains Struik. With the right information it is possible to predict when will be the best time for a farmer to do that. ‘There are advanced decisionmaking systems available to help with making the right choices. But a lot of information is needed for that. Where are the primary sources of infection, how does the infection pressure develop, how does the crop develop and how does the weather develop?’

Evoca plans to set up an information system for this using apps like the mosquito radar one or text messaging services. The technology is nothing out of the ordinary, says Struik. ‘The technology is there. The point is the way it’s applied. How do you win farmers over to participate, getting them to see the use of supplying that data? How do you make a system like this operational?’

The situation for brown rot is a bit different. Nothing can be done about brown rot. Struik: ‘So far farmers are not very good at recognizing brown rot and when they do spot it, it is often too late. And then they prefer not to tell anyone they’ve got brown rot. There is no curative treatment, but there is a big need for a widely supported strategy for controlling the infection pressure through hygienic measures. That starts with monitoring and for that you need a network.’