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Early detection of Banana Bunchy Top Virus to revive banana farming in Karonga, Malawi

We will use Artificial Intelligence software to detect banana diseases using high spatial resolution satellite images

Photo of Rochelle Ferguson
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Self Help Africa

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Orbas Ltd. is a Dublin based company that was founded by research academics in the Agriculture Department of University College Dublin. SHA and Orbas have already formed a successful partnership on Fall Army Worm detection in Malawi. Maxar Technologies Inc. is a space technology company headquartered in Westminster, Colorado specialising in the acquisition, delivery and processing of high resolution satellite imagery.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Karonga an area in Karonga District

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Self Help Africa has been working in Malawi since 2011 when we began our first project in the Karonga District which has since increased the resilience of 15,586 households to climate-related shocks. This was achieved through building the capacity of district and sub-district structures to prepare for and respond to disasters; supporting smallholders to increase and diversify crop and livestock production, adopt sustainable and adaptive agriculture technologies and improve dietary diversification; building individual and community capacity to sustainably manage natural resources and mitigate the effects of climate change; enhancing entrepreneurship and access to finance and improving coordination and awareness among key stakeholders on climate change adaptation and disaster risk management. 

With our national delivery team, we have grown to deliver six different projects across Malawi all aimed at helping smallholder farmers, their families, local communities and Government actors to improve their agricultural practices, maximize yield, improve nutrition, increase economic stability and work towards a sustainable future rooted in solid agricultural practices. Our active presence in Malawi has allowed us to work with a number of local, national and international organizations all working towards the same goal of supporting sustainable agriculture to accelerate the development of communities. Through working at such a varied level from individual smallholder farmers up to Government policies, we have developed a sound understanding of Malawi as well as a strong link with communities. We understand how important the agricultural industry is which is why we are developing a solution to combat diseases threatening banana farming and ensure that the banana industry can thrive once again.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, Malawi is a very peaceful country which boasts a calm and relaxed way of life. Home to a number of ethnic groups including Chewa, Nyanja, Yao, Tumbuka, Lomwe, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, and Ngonde, the official language is Chichewa which is spoken by just 57% of the population with several native languages making up the other 43%. 

Malawi is a land-locked country with an impressive lake which constitutes a third of the countries’ mass, the lake has amazing biodiversity and is home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world. The Karonga District, on the northern lakeshore of Lake Malawi, covers the Rift Valley Escarpment and the flatter land on the lakeshore at the foot of the Rift Valley escarpment. Karonga District has one of the highest rainfalls in Malawi but there are large differences in the rainfall across the district. The rainfall patterns determine the crops grown - maize is grown in the drier south, bananas in the wetter areas bordering Tanzania and rice wherever the rivers flowing off the escarpment create areas suitable for irrigation. 

The staple food in the South is nsima, a white and soft maize flour porridge, it is usually accompanied by side dishes, such as beans, vegetables, meat or fish (like the famous chambo of Lake Malawi). A local favourite is ndiwo, a dark leafy vegetable sautéed with tomatoes and peanut sauce. In the north where rainfall is heavier, rice makes the base for most meals. Bananas provide sustenance to farmers and their families as a nutritional extra and also provide security as a food that can be eaten once the maize stocks have run down.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The banana industry stands to offer a sustainable income for smallholder farmers in Malawi while contributing to a sound economy for the country as a whole.  In 2017, the banana industry in Malawi was responsible for producing 452,467 tonnes of bananas, yet this industry is at serious threat from diseases including Black Sigatoka, Bunchy Top Virus, Panama Disease and Xanthomonas Bacterial Wilt. A new banana disease, Fusarium Tropical Race 4, is now in Mozambique and likely to spread to Malawi.  The most economically damaging disease currently affecting bananas is the Banana Bunchy Top Virus.

Banana Bunchy Top Disease is causing devastation to banana plantations in Malawi (and around the world).  Caused by the Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV), this disease is being spread by insects and by using infected materials while planting.  In Malawi, most banana plantations are being affected by the virus, crop quality is affected, and yields are lower.  The virus is negatively affecting the income of smallholder farmers as well as impacting the amount of this nutritious fruit available to the people of Malawi. 

Over the past two decades, the Banana Bunchy Top Virus has been so problematic that the farming of bananas has dramatically reduced meaning farmers are being forced to look into other crops to ensure they can maintain a sustainable income and provide food for their families.  In recent years, Malawi has become reliant on neighbouring countries, namely Tanzania and Mozambique, to import the nutritious staple food.  [LW1]

Unlike the banana plantations of central America, chemical control of these diseases is not an economic option for smallholder farmers in Malawi. The current, preferred option is to breed disease resistant/ tolerant varieties.  The Government of Malawi, in collaboration with French researchers has distributed new banana varieties that should be resistant to Banana Bunchy Top Virus.

While there are a number of active initiatives helping farmers to access clean planting materials and resistant strains to help in the short term, there are no systems available to detect the emergence of the virus or to assess the scale of the problem.  It is important that we deliver a long-term solution to protect the income and dietary diversity of smallholder farmers and their families and to protect the economic stability the banana industry can provide to Malawi.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Self Help Africa (SHA) has been working with Orbas Ltd to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm that can analyse satellite images to detect the change in the colour / reflectance of maize fields infected with the Fall Armyworm. The software is still being perfected but is already achieving 80-90% accuracy in detecting fields damaged by the Fall Armyworm.  The government of Malawi approached Self Help Africa and have asked if we could use the software to assess the level of Banana Bunchy Top Virus damage and, critically, to identify if the new banana varieties are proving to be resistant.

This approach should, with additional research, be ideal for addressing this challenge. Banana Bunchy Top Virus creates a very distinctive change in the canopy colour (reflectance) and banana plantations are long term features meaning we should be able to monitor changes in banana plantations from satellite images.

The work will involve regular surveys of sentinel banana plantations to collect the field data that will be used to build and test the algorithm. Each site will be geotagged using high resolution GPS equipment so that the plantation can be geolocated on high resolution satellite images. The images will be purchased from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs.

Developing an early warning system for the detection of Banana Bunchy Top will enable local authorities to target the control of the virus in a strategic manner. This will significantly reduce the amount of labour involved, reduce the amount of pesticides used and significantly speed up the control and eradication of the virus through targeted hot spots.  It will also provide an economically viable option for smallholder farmers to overcome pest problems making banana farming a reliable source of food and income once again.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

If our approach is successful, Banana Bunchy Top Virus can be controlled through a pro-active, targeted and timely detection system that will analyse new satellite images in real time, providing maps and reports of the levels of the virus at local scales.  The chances of banana plantations being wiped out will be reduced meaning that farmers will be able to confidently rely on the production and sale of bananas for their livelihoods and for a source of nutrition once again.

Bananas are highly nutritious fruit with one serving offering an average of 110 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrates and 1 gram of protein along with other vital vitamins including B6, C, Potassium, Magnesium and fibre.  Their nutritional value and filling potential make them popular market items both in rural and urban areas.  More farmers would be turning to banana plantations for nutrition and income if their growth was more reliable.  Their popularity has considerable potential for expanding banana production to meet demand and to provide a very good income.  If we were able to offer long term solutions to tackle disease in banana plantations, farmers would be able to rely on bananas to increase their household income.

 Localised control of Banana Bunchy Top Virus and other diseases will significantly reduce the financial and environmental costs associated with broad brushed chemical controls. The use of technologies, such as what is outlined in this project, will significantly enhance food security in Malawi, allowing farmers to invest in their farm enterprises so that they can meet the significant increase demand for food that is projected between now and 2050. Increased profitability in farms, due to reduced losses, will as a result, reduce rural to urban migration and therefore sustain local communities, both economically and socially.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is for an agricultural food system safe from the spread of pests and diseases.  Our solution is to develop satellite imaging technology which will allow us to monitor and predict the influx of pests and viruses affecting the food system.  Our Artificial Intelligence-based remote sensing software will allow detection at an early stage so that action can be taken before the food system is compromised.

This method has proven successful in our attempts to target Fall Army Worm which has affected maize crops and has so far brought 80% accuracy in predicting the presence of the pest.  We believe that with further research and adaptations our method will also prove successful in helping to target outbreaks of Banana Bunchy Top Virus.  We will then become more aware of the process needed to adapt our technology to target other pests or viruses affecting agriculture.  This technology essentially has the power to be adapted in any country, to any scale and for any food system.  By 2050 we will be able to adapt this technology to focus on new infestations, pests and diseases.

During this project, we will deliver regular paper-based and digital reports on the status of Banana Bunchy Top (and other diseases) to the local communities on a no-fee bases. This will be a basic report on the status of the disease as well as its spread which will give local communities the necessary information and assurances for the control of the disease. We will also send a much more detailed report with high spatial resolution maps and information to local authorities, NGO's and companies through a dedicated app. This will allow these organisations to monitor, in significant detail, the spread of the disease, as well as being able to assess if/ what mitigation measures are working in what regions. The app and reports can also be used to convey other information to farmers and local organisation on things like incumbent pest and disease alerts, advice on cultivation and weather reports as well as information on market prices and market forecasts.

This project will facilitate creating a locally sustainable and secure food system, by embracing satellite technologies and AI. Studies have shown (Gottlieb and Fisher, 1996) that increased food security which is led at the local level will lead to empowerment of local communities.  With new and innovative technology leading our vision, we are able to link with and positively affect Malawi’s economy, improve diets and lives of Malawians, support a healthy environment and contribute to new policies to prevent pests and viruses from harming the food system.

Technology - this tool will improve considerably in accuracy and frequency with the increased development of high spatial resolution satellites now projected over the next 25 years. Remote monitoring of crops will become common place as the digital information stream to farmers in Malawi and other countries will empower them to increase profits by increasing yield and reducing input costs.

Environment – this technology will allow us to work with farmers, service providers and Government to develop environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions to pests and disease issues.  We will be able to prevent the spread of such problems which have the potential to devastate large expanses of farming land which can negatively affect local flora and fauna.

Economics – our project supports economic stability of individuals and their families while also contributing to the economy of Malawi as a whole (currently approximately 3% contribution to Malawi’s GDP).  Bananas are a globally consumed fruit and are a staple in many diets around the world.  In 2016, the exportation of bananas was worth $8billion, globally which accounted for an estimated 15% of the worlds’ banana production.  The largest global suppliers of bananas lay within South America with parts of Africa high on the list (FAO).  Having a secure and reliable banana crop and value chain could contribute to the economy of farmers, Malawi and the rest of Africa by 2050.

Culture – Food brings people together. Mealtimes are seen as an important cultural activity, bringing together the family as well as the larger community. Food has always had a special place, especially in ceremonies such as initiation rites, weddings and even burials. Malawians are renowned for their hospitality, going the extra mile to please guests, especially when it comes to cooking. In the villages, ‘chippies’ serve low-budget food, often cooked over an open fire. Local chefs pride themselves on using the best readily available ingredients including fresh fruit and vegetables in season.

Diets - this project supports the promotion of nutritional diversity.  Malawi has a stunting rate of 37.1%.  Nutritionists consider a diverse diet to be an important factor in reducing micro-nutrient deficiencies, one of several drivers of undernutrition. Initially focussing on the highly nutritious banana, we can focus on the survival of particular food groups now and moving forward to our 2050 vision.

We envision by the end of this project and moving forward to 2050, that our technology will become an integrated system providing pest and disease information to Governments, UN, NGOs and commercial farmers.  We also envisage this software being integrated into the FAO’s pest and disease warning system.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Cortney Ahern

Hi Rochelle Ferguson welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!
Thank you for submitting your vision to revive banana farming in Malawi. The technology you describe sounds incredibly powerful and impactful.

Some questions and suggestions that might help to strengthen your vision:
- It's clear you have a specific solution in mind for this place and this issue. How does that scale up into a vision for Malawi's food system in 2050? What would life look like in 2050 if you achieved your solution? How might you evolve your Vision to make it more inclusive and systemic for your local food system and its numerous stakeholders?
- Your vision encompasses many of the six issue areas of the prize, especially technology, economics and diet. How do culture, policy and environment connect? There might be room to strengthen those ties to show how this is truly a systemic solution and vision.
- You might also be interested in connecting with @Bettie Kawonga about her vision for Malawi.

I also wanted to make sure that you have seen our Food Vision Prize Toolkit with a lot of information, activities, and guidelines. The Toolkit can help you refine your Vision and make it more systemic, human-centred and well informed for the future. Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.

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