OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Talisman, a shining light for small-holder farmers

Animation based decision support tool for low literacy small holder farmers in developing countries

Photo of Dr Simon M Holland

Written by


The Talisman is a decision support system for small holder farmers in developing countries and uses combination of science, animations and an audio-visual interface to engage with farmers and help them to make decisions themselves on how they want to manage their farm. Unlike other information systems which simply propagate one way of doing agriculture, our tool can support farmers based on the condition of their soil, the goals they set to improve this, whether they want to do irrigated or rain-fed agriculture, high yielding or organic, etc. In season advisories are tailored to varieties and local conditions so that disease resistant varieties aren't sprayed with disease preventing pesticides when there's no need for these. Also, irrigations are based on the water-holding / retention capacity of the soil not just the weather forecast. The system is further embedded in communities through profiling combined with sms(text) or IVR(voice) interfaces so that farmers without smartphones can also benefit from tailored advice based on a subset of questions to profile them into a group with other similar farmers.


Small-holder farmers are the main beneficiaries of our system given that they are the primary target of the Talisman product, this can be especially so for female farmers who for cultural reasons are sometimes excluded from in-field training and extension programmes. Rural youth are also a major beneficiary group due to their connection to ICT technologies and the new revenue and service provision opportunities we can offer them.


Our Talisman product and content have been developed across India, Nepal and a few countries in Africa. We plan to use the funding to localise the content in Ghana and Nepal, where we have been working with local partners for several years.


  • Yes


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for over a year


  • Yes, for more than one year.


Anglo-Indian company with main operations in India & UK. Working with partners to deliver projects in a number of countries globally, PDA is our partner in Ghana with direct links to farmers. Mix of business, agriculture, development, media & tech skills which are relatively unique in the sector.


We've been working with smallholder farmers, NGOs, Government & Agribusinesses for over eight years to understand how ICTs can be used to transform agriculture. Previously we developed & released the National Pest & Disease Surveillance system for the Government of India (UN FAO) which used professional scouting techniques on a common platform across 30 different research and extension systems using the then leading technology of PDAs. Prior to the advent of smart-phones we trialed the use of video in function-phones although this was too far ahead of its time as the function phones (except for a few) we're not capable of managing the content or App sizes required. This used a 3x3 matrix of images accessed by using the numeric keypad of the function phone. We've done a number of other projects with NGOs & Agribusinesses to develop research & extension systems used to manage & train farmers with a number of embedded training videos. Talisman is an evolution of all of these targeted at being accessible even to zero literacy farmers through heavy use of embedded videos and animations to make the phone communicate almost like a person with the farmer & link them to markets


We have been working hard with four Universities in the UK, two in India and one in Africa to develop a strong scientific backbone to our solution which allows us to use what were previously leading research tools: - soil-climate crop modelling - Agro-ecosystem research - Pest & Disease Sureveillance - Animal Health and Disease Management ... to develop cloud based background analysis and simplified tools which we then push down as a meta-model which then lives in the phone allowing every farmer to get an individual solution to his problems even when offline. We've also been developing animation and video production skills and testing these with farmers, NGOs and Research Institutes for their effectiveness in explaining and delivering knowledge to small-holder farmers and have been developing and refining our skills in how to do this, although we really look forwards to the additional insights we can garner from OpenIdeo to strengthen this communication mechanism further. Please see the attached document - Responses to Reviewers Questions for more detailed responses


India & Nepal we have a dedicated team: - Business Consulting (Strategy & Operations) - Dr Simon M Holland - International Development Consulting (Africa & Asia) - Raj Jani - Agriculture, Quality Management & Certifications Expertise - Sandeep Sharma - Government Sector Marketing with Microsoft & Innovation Consulting - Akanksha Pundir - Technology Architecture & Leadership - Utkarsh Shukla - +4x tech + Animator Ghana-PDA-Tony Dogbe, Beatrice Sarpong etc


We’ve already looked at how to incorporate a number of the changes, especially around farmer testimonials and demonstration plots to help convince farmers of the benefits of our service. We’re also looking at how to provide integrated packs which incorporate seed, inputs, practices and insurance. Convincing farmers that their soil can be improved over the long term and that complex or multi-nutrient solutions will give them better results requires the above but also more information and explanations for farmers as to how these things work together with farmer testimonials on particular types of practices to improve performance and long term soil health. Where other services have promised to help before but failed, we will have to show that our solutions are individual and offer farmers choices rather than simply telling them what to do. Again, farmer testimonials will support this together with local trials and NGO support. We will also put an increased focus into on-farm inputs production and soil amendments which help farmers to increase profitability and soil health with limited external spending, as well as expanding Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITKs)


We have a lot of work to do on capturing practices data across different geographies and also tailoring content to local languages. • How can we: o convince farmers to join with so many other Apps which may deliver less useful advice o ensure local language is accessible to farmers, simple words, localised terms o simplify some of our more complex screens yet still capture the required information for best advice o identify the best channel partners to scale the service in new regions o leverage development agencies & NGOs to support expansion o keep up with changes to technology such as sensors and the IOT o encourage more farmer led research, monetise for them and share


The whole area of agritech is going through massive changes right now with advances in precision agriculture in the west likely to evolve for many many years to come. The same challenges are faced in low-middle income countries but the complexities are significantly larger as farms are much smaller and large scale mechanization is not the most appropriate answer. Our solution takes the best of the science and mixes it with multimedia content to make this accessible to low literacy farmers, there are very few organisations which bring together media, IT and domain expertise (agri + business) in the way we do which is why we believe we're still very much at the forefront of this work.


We have been working towards the goal of bringing knowledge, motivation and profitability to all farmers in low-middle income countries and providing them with opportunities to transform their lives and livelihoods. We expect that our tools will help farmers to feel positive about their role and engage with nature with a view that they are in an area with great opportunities for growth.


  • More than a year


  • Within 50 km of where our team does most of its work
  • Within 100 km of where our team does most of its work
  • Within in 500 km of where our team does most of its work
  • More than 500 km from where our team does most of its work


  • Between $100,000 and $500,000

The Talisman has been developed working with small-holder farmers in India and Africa to understand the issues they face and how they look to learn more to make decisions themselves.

The Talisman uses an Audio-Visual Interface with Embedded Animations

By listening to farmers we've not only been able to involve them in the design of the Talisman, but also to understand how eager they are to learn new things about their farms and crops so that they can understand and engage in the changes they make to their farming practices.

We've also worked with major institutions to develop solid science behind what we do, for example working with the Stockholm Environment Institute to develop a biogeochemical soil model which lets us adapt answers to each and every farmer.  This also allows us to adapt irrigation and fertiliser plans based on real time climatic conditions and forecasts.

Our Strong Partner Ecosystem has allowed us to build the App on Solid Science and Extension Best Practices

All of this knowledge has been embedded in the Talisman together with market tools to enable farmers with low numeracy levels to make decisions on the best market strategy by balancing market price with transportation cost and potential losses en-route.

We also use the same method of engagement to share knowledge with farmers on building soil organic carbon and enhancing the soil structure as well as improving post-harvest management practices for longer more secure storage or enhanced value-addition.

Reducing Erosion is Essential to Conserve Soil Resources for Future Generations
Vermicompost production to increase soil fertility
Simple on-farm storage for turmeric
One of the Pineapple plantations we worked with

Here's an example of how animations bring concepts to life for farmers (will update video if can figure out how to do this).  In the push-pull cropping system maize (corn) is inter-cropped with desmodium (a green fodder pulse).  The desmodium emits a phytochemical which smells bad to the stem-borer pest and "pushes" them out of the field.  Napier grass planted as a border-crop is attractive to stem-borers and "pulls" them out of the field to lay their eggs, unfortunately for them the larvae can't survive on the Napier grass.  

Animations of the Push-Pull System let us bring it to life for farmers and explain in ways they can understand

An additional benefit of this eco-agriculture system is that Striga weeds which can destroy 80-90% of a maize crop is controlled through a suicidal germination initiated by the desmodium.  

This type of system is obviously very complex to explain without the aid of animations which hampers its adoption without one to one extension worker support making it difficult to spread the benefits.

The final area where we add value is in developing local expertise through extension and certification tools which allow local resources to take on more skilled roles through in-app training.


Responses to Reviewers More Detailed Questions added below ...


Where would people view the videos?

There are a few answers to this question, the first is that many of them will be embedded in the App flow itself, introducing topics or questions by way of an education section and then a choice, this would help the farmers to make choices about their farms and their preferred way of working. The outcome of this is a set of practices options, so here they can view more detail (videos) on some of the options to make their final choice.

Once choices are made a calendar of events is created and an overview given, with detailed how to refreshers closer to the time of activity if the farmers choose to watch these.

Our mode of operation is to embed the content in the App from the start (although there will obviously need to be updates over time as we add more crops and practices), this way the content is viewable without the need for connectivity.

In terms of choices, once the initial profiling is done we create a farm / farmer profile in the phone which is used to moderate solutions to the particular conditions. This can be done at a high level without connectivity but a low bandwidth data exchange will allow further processing in the cloud and then a more refined parameter set to be transferred back to the phone for decision support.

There will also be discovery mechanisms for farmers to explore good agricultural practices without having to define a crop first.

Finally, the Talisman is the direct to farmer version, we also have an AgXpert version that we've worked on with different NGOs and agribusinesses and this takes the knowledge direct to farmers via tablets or mobile phones of the extension workers. To enable this we've been looking in detail at how the different types of content support the delivery of field work and 1 piece of content can then be re-purposed into many different delivery mechanisms depending on the type of training / sharing mechanism to be deployed, this is a particular area where we feel OpenIdeo will be able to add significant value-add to our efforts as there's so much still to learn and discover about how to do this effectively.

Is this an already established product? If so, what could Amplify add?

We have mainly launched extension worker products to date where we can implement 1 part of the solution at a time and have also learnt how to improve and simplify the interfaces.

Making screens work without the need for reading requires a lot more efforts than for literate extension workers and we've done the first run-through of the screen designs and content to make this work. However, there are a number of screen types for which we know we can do a lot better with the support of the OpenIdeo project as although we think about the ergonomics of screen design a lot we haven't got the same level of expertise we could access from this project.

As mentioned in the answer above also, the types of content and reasons for using these in different training / engagement models is an area where a massive amount of work needs to be done and we need all the support we can get to do this better and in ever easier ways to digest.

How will the multiple partners described here work together? How will responsibility be shared?

We've been working the concept with the idea of taking in multiple geographies right from the start and as such the share of working roles has always been embedded in the design.

At the highest level Barefoot Lightning is responsible for the Application design and build with enabling science delivered in partnership with prestigious institutions (eg The Stockholm Environment Institute / Hutton Institute for Soil-Climate-Crop models, In Africa ICIPE for Insect ecology and Agro-Ecosystem Design, etc).

The next level requires a local delivery partner which is frequently an NGO, they will typically have a number of roles including getting feedback on localising the service desiogn and also translating content to local language.

Another important role of the local partner is in agriculture local practices data capture from Farmers, NGOs and research Institutes in the area so we can combine the best of local and global practices.

Finally there is an outreach role which requires getting to farmers, directly, via NGOs, Inputs companies or mobile service providers and then adding market linkages, all of which needs to be designed/built locally.


This service will be competing with many others -how will farmers understand the unique benefits of your product?

We realize that this is one of our biggest challenges we face to scaling and also one of the areas where we believe we can benefit significantly from the support of the OpenIdeo project and network for ideas.

In terms of our own endeavors to address this we see partners and channels and one of the main ways to address this. Firstly, we've already been engaging with leading NGOs and our experience is that they often have sufficient expertise and insight to be able to see the benefits a science based system with individualization and rich media brings. Similarly for agribusinesses, so both of these are important channels to reach farmers and get the message across. Also, by incorporating value-chain partners we bring another pull which is that of market linkages which is a significant pull for farmers.

The next aspect is to work with mobile service providers and the response to date has been very encouraging, especially for those investing heavily in networks that want to showcase what can be achieved through mobiles. Even though our content doesn't need network connectivity to work, the media rich nature of the content helps to create a compelling marketing story for the service providers and we've had some very positive discussions with the GSMA as well.

The final element in this part of the story is to use farmer testimonials both in the phones, but then also as part of a wider marketing campaign. Although we see these primarily to encourage and drive adoption of the practices, they will also have value in developing trust and connectivity to the farmer communities.

How is this better/different to other agricultural extension services?

Traditional agricultural extension services require manpower to deliver services and as such can be both costly as well as of limited reach, for example across many countries they might reach 10-20% of farmers in a ten year period.

Our Talisman service can deliver very rich and tailored content to individual farmers no matter how remote they are and allow them to get answers to their questions when they need them not only when they come into contact with an extension worker.

In terms of our extension support tools (AgXpert), these focus on ensuring quality and consistency of the messages delivered as well as supporting extension workers to trial new ways of training and delivering tailored services. This is an area where we see OpenIdeo could also provide a lot of support in helping us define the different ways we re-purpose content for different types of training intervention which requires a lot of creativity and experience.

In terms of the support delivered, our solutions are science based and accessible to anyone regardless of their level of literacy or command of different languages. Not only that, they provide individualized answers based on the farmers soil fertility and preferences / capabilities for growing, eg A farmer looking for the maximum yield requires a very different set of practices from a rain-fed or organic farmer, although they would all benefit from protecting and enhancing their soil resources.


Will it eventually be replaced as precision agriculture technologies become cheaper/more widely available?

The current role of precision agriculture in the west is to identify and treat different areas of a large field with different levels of fertilizer using a significant degree of mechanization. In most low-middle income countries farm sizes are very fragmented (less than 1/2 acre (1/4 Ha)) with very limited farm mechanization. Mechanized service provision is being developed in many regions but the uptake and reach is very slow and the appropriateness for very small fields can be debated.

Many of the mechanisms which work well for small farms such as ecological solutions (see animation above) are incompatible with mechanization yet can give yields above those of simple chemical based farming depending on the conditions. Also, scouting and understanding the different pests and ecosystem balances before taking a treatment decision certainly work better with a close-up field inspection than a remote analysis.

That's not to say that precision agriculture, GIS and mapping etc are not important and developments in areas such as vegetation index based insurance pay-outs are proof that remote sensing can have a number of very useful roles to play.

Our expectation is that the combination of localized practices choices, effective training content, on-ground observations and remote sensing are the ultimate evolution of these types of services in Low & Middle Income Countries and we look forwards to being in a strong position to lead this with large practices and content databases and simple interfaces to deliver choice and decisions support. Of course the other integrating element is value-chain linkages which we expect to evolve with our services.

Latest research (Mary Meeker) shows smartphone penetration slowing (India is the exception). Will video be supported sufficiently in the contexts where this is being piloted?

The very first work we did to incorporate video and animations was on a feature phone (before smartphone OSs existed) where the choices were governed by numeric input from the keyboard. The challenges we faced then were lack of memory in simple function phones and lack of standardized OSs, fortunately both of these have changed for the better so we know it is possible to use function phones to deliver these type of services if needed.

However, our view is that if compelling content which is not only interesting and useful but also provides an effective connection to buyers and enhanced income then this in itself can support a more compelling reason to choose a smart-phone vs a function phone, especially with the price differential being minimal and smaller every month.

In terms of the levels of penetration already, unless we set unrealistic market penetration rates above 50% market share, there are more than enough smart-phones in nearly all markets to allow us to deliver our services with many more smart-phones left untouched.

The final element to this is that we’re not reliant on smart-phones only for delivering services, it’s just that these let us deliver a better service as well as to establish learning and profiling loops, thus we can expect some farmers to benefit from this content through profiling and subsequent calendared actions.

In terms of seeing how to undertake best practices in their field there are multiple options depending on the context, for example they might view content on another farmers phone or be linked to an extension worker / extension group that can share content or demonstrate practices in the field with the aid of our AgXpert solutions.


Is video a more effective channel than other lower cost channels (e.g., SMS) or more personalised/trusted (visits from agricultural extension experts)?

“A picture tells a 1000 words”, and yet a video can explain concepts not visible in an image and an animation can bring simple concepts to life through magnifications and other techniques to help get messages across.

In terms of cost, this is completely dependent on the market and in many markets SMSs are the most expensive form of data transfer due to their historic delivery mechanism. However, if they are cheaper then our application can use these for data transfer instead of 2.5/3G data transfer.

Remember because our content is embedded in the App on installation we don’t used bandwidth for service delivery and in fact a machine coded message can convey far more information than a linguistic text with the same number of characters. So SMS is not necessarily or even likely to be a lower cost channel than our service delivery unless it’s free (in which case we can make use of that also).

The other area of importance is that SMS is only effective for literate farmers and there are large communities of farmers without the skills to access this type of information and they’re frequently the ones who need it most.

In terms of agriculture extension experts, there’s no doubt that experiencing a training event is likely to embed learning better and the reason we’re working on extension tools (AgXpert) is that we consider effective extension to be the gold standard for farmer knowledge sharing. It does however have an associated cost and suffers from the quality and motivation of the individual trainers / organisations delivering service.

So in summary, we believe Talisman and AgXpert to be important tools in the delivery of knowledge and extension services to as broad a farmer population as possible and also see them as a way to improve upon and enhance premium extension services by making them more tailored and consistent in their delivery.


What work your team has done to determine whether small scale farmers find this desirable and would access this type of service. How do you know that this app will contain the type of information they want, or that they want to access this information in an app or video? 

In terms of the type of content that we're making available for farmers we've been working directly with small-holder farmers on real projects for years and taken their input all along the way as to what they need as well as conducting global secondary research on what farmers in different regions want to know in terms of priorities.

In terms of they types of content and ways of sharing, we've found the most important thing is to share knowledge that helps farmers to really learn about the subject closest to their hearts ie agriculture and when we can do that you can see the thanks on peoples faces as they are given an opportunity to really learn.

I've just emerged from a major project proposal which is working with groups of farmers and again the feedback on the content and ways of communicating is all very positive as we look to help them take a farmers producer group to the next level.

Below are some images from a farmers convention which hopefully convey the level of interest from this group also

Farmer Interest at Farmers Convention
Farmers showing interest at convention
Taking Measurements in Field with Farmer
Inspecting Crop for Pest & Disease


Join the conversation:

Photo of Genevieve Thompson

Hi Dr Holland,

I am a genomics research scientist currently based at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in South Africa. The ARC works on all aspects of plant and animal crops, predominantly at a national level. This type of technology would be extremely useful to farmers in southern Africa, a number of which already have smart phones. I recently attended the third Global Conference for Agricultural Research and Development that was held in Johannesburg. During this conference, there were a few hints towards such mobile based apps, all of which were well supported by the audience (scientists, farmers and stakeholders). As yet, I have not been able to see a fully functional app. Is it available for download or is there a beta version I could share with colleagues?

Many thanks,
Dr Genevieve Thompson

View all comments