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The Power of Mobile: Saving Uganda's Banana Crop

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Through my work on the Uganda Agricultural Technology and Agribusiness Advisory (ATAAS), managed by Rasit Pertev, I have learned that Banana is a major staple in Uganda consumed by over 14 million people – the highest annual consumption of bananas in the world at about 0.7kg per person per day.

I also learned that Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) is the single most important threat the banana sub-sector.  BBW spreads very fast and if not controlled can cause total yield loss within one year. Yield losses of 90% have been reported on some farms due to banana bacterial wilt. The potential national loss is therefore estimated at $360 million per annum (i.e. 90% of Banana contribution to GDP).

Earlier this year, Rasit Pertev, the TTL of World Bank financed project ATAAS has initiated a Rapid Response Initiative on BBW with the main goal to decrease the rate of incidence from 42% down to 5% within a year and stop the spread of devastating infection that is killing banana plantations and threatening food security.  BBW is a joint initiative, now financed through ATAAS operation in the amount of 5 mln per year, is led by the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF), National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and supported by local governments who committed to a common goal of bringing this disease under control.

Coming from the ICT sector, I am aware of the massive potential of ICT and especially mobile technologies.  I am a strong believer that we at the Bank should try to harness the innovation, rather than funding “re-invention of the wheel.”  So I started to think about how we could leverage ICT to help Uganda tackle the BBW problem.

Earlier this year, my two ICT colleagues, Merrick Schaefer and Joshua Goldstein, identified a number of innovative ICT solutions that have been developed and implemented by UNICEF’s Technology for Development (T4D) team.  One of them is Ureport (, which is a network of 195,000+ volunteers across Uganda who use mobile technology to report on various issues that are of interest to UNICEF and other development partners.

Next step:  I presented the opportunity to Rasit, who immediately saw the potential to use Ureport for:
• Initial awareness raising
• Visualization of the epidemic
• Dissemination of symptoms description
• Dissemination of treatment options

Our team has reached out to UNICEF team requesting them to let us test the applicability of Ureport to visualize the BBW epidemic and disseminate information to affected communities.  After getting the green light and a letter of support from the Ministry, we launched a 5 days complain in close consultation with the members of Rapid Response Initiative , UNICEF and the Ureport steering committee:

March 26:  SMS to almost 190,000 Ureporters: “Do you know any farmers whose banana plantations or crops are infected with banana bacterial wilt disease? YES or NO.”

In 24 hours we received over 35,000 responses, mapping the spread of the BBW disease across Uganda.  As shown below, almost 55% of U-reporters reported knowing farmers who had crops infected with BBW (indicated in green) and 38% said they did not (indicated in red):


Map of BBW Spread

March 27:  SMS to all respondents, regardless of whether they answered YES or NO to the first poll:  “Banana Bacterial Wilt is a banana disease spread through insects and cutting tools that causes rotting of bunches and drying of male buds (mpumumpu).

March 28:  SMS to all respondents:  “55% of U-reporters know plantations with Banana Bacteria Wilt. It attacks matooke, ripens bunches prematurely, dries male bud. SMS BBW for more info”.

17,000 Ureporters requested additional details. All got this response: “To control, avoid moving infected plant, break male bud, cut infected plants, clean cutting tools using jik or flame. (1 JIK: in 5 water). Tell someone you know.

Over the five days of BBW engagement, more than 52,000 U-reporters either provided information, requested information or both via SMS.  The 19% response rate to the first poll was the fifth highest response to a poll in the two-year, 200-question history of Ureport.  Through this exercise, we were able to map the disease and make almost 190,000 people aware of what BBW does and what action they could take.  And this only cost 3 US cents per person.

What Ureport made possible was not only information dissemination or data gathering, but a nationwide conversation focused on a critical issue for Ugandans.  It allowed us to take a real time snapshot of the situation, in the wake of the launch of Banana Bacterial Wilt Rapid Response Initiative.

All it took was the trust of a TTL, passion to save bananas to feed the kids, commitment to demonstrate the power of mobile, and ability to leverage existing innovation.  This is still a pilot, but I can’t contain my excitement about Ureport’s potential for other sectors in Uganda.  We are now discussing with education and urban development colleagues how we can leverage Ureport and other innovative solutions developed by UNICEF’s T4D to increase the impact of the World Bank operations in Uganda. 

More to come!

Luda on behalf of a joint ICT/Agriculture team


Luda Bujoreanu

Senior Program Officer, ID4D initiative

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