SoilSCAN citizen science in Tanzania
Research Technician Maarten Wynants demonstrates the AgroCares soil scanner
East African farming communities face complex challenges regarding food and feed productivity. Primary production systems are under stress, nutritional choices are changing and the relationship between development and agriculture is undergoing profound transformation. Soil erosion in particular now poses a severe threat and there has never been a greater urgency for evidence-led, sustainable land management interventions to reverse degradation of natural resources that support food and water security.
A key barrier, however, is a lack of locally available high spatial resolution soil health data – the conventional research community is not practically able to gather this data efficiently across large agro-pastoral regions. However, collection of soil health data can potentially be achieved through a coordinated citizen science programme, where every individual in the rural communities has a stake in contributing to the research effort to find sustainable solutions to this challenge.
Citizen science soil scanner
"Effective ‘citizen science’ is a rigorous process, indistinguishable from conventional science apart from the participation of volunteers. When properly designed and implemented, citizen science projects can efficiently generate high-quality data and help to solve problems." 
(McKinley et al., 2017, p.15)*

Project aims

The SoilSCAN citizen science programme aimed to test the potential for using handheld AgroCares soil scanners as a tool for mapping whole community soil characteristics at a resolution beyond that achievable in conventional research, with the ultimate objective to deliver research that empowers stakeholders to create sustainable community landscape plans.

Empowering citizen scientists

Our interdisciplinary work in Tanzania – the 'Jali ardhi' project – highlighted a critical gap in local scientific understanding needed to effect change. Many farmers lacked site-specific technical soil information that would enable them to sustainably manage their fragile soils. SoilSCAN has helped to close this gap.
By introducing accessible and portable technology, along with the relevant operational training, we enabled farmers to become successful citizen scientists, empowered to collect data to help them to make sustainable land and soil management decisions.
Overcoming challenges
Working with the community and the scanner, our team sought to address several critical 'non-technical' challenges that had been highlighted by other researchers:
  • Lack of farmer awareness of the importance of soil testing.
  • Difficulty in finding and retaining 'champions' or early adopters to promote the use of SMART agri-tech.
  • Insufficient expertise of Extension Officers, preventing them from giving specific and tailored advice based on scan results.
  • Lack of ownership and engagement with the technology, which was seen as part of Western donor culture.
Future research will explore the potential for scaling up the use of portable soil scanners and, more generally, other types of SMART intermediate agri-technology, expanding their use to other communities and other agricultural production contexts within East Africa.
Our researchers worked in partnership with an agro-pastoral community where all citizens have a stake in soil erosion challenges in their everyday lives. The village of Emaerete, in Tanzania, has been a key partner in the 'Jali ardhi' project since its inception, and the project team at the University of Plymouth and Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology have a close working relationship with the community, District Council Extension Officers and local sustainable land management NGOs.
Tanzania Will Blake

Jali Ardhi

Looking to the future

Data generated through this project has been integrated with digital terrain models derived from photogrammetric drone surveys by technical specialists at NM-AIST and made accessible to the local community, as well as the wider scientific community. This type of data can permit area-wide modelling of soil health alongside landscape connectivity responses to management change. This, in turn, can form the basis of land management/restoration discussions and help to underpin the co-designing of enhanced production restoration ‘blueprints’ based on optimal conversion of degraded land to new productive and resilient land uses.
Citizen science-derived databases will be instrumental in delivering new knowledge of soil status at a resolution beyond the scope of conventional research funding that will feed back into community benefits through land management change and socio-economic impact. The ongoing support of Monduli District Council, its Agricultural Extension Officers and other local policy makers, with whom we are closely connected, is critical to delivering the implementation of evidence-led nature-based solutions.
* D. C. McKinley, A. J. Miller-Rushing, H. L. Ballard, R. Bonney, H. Brown, S. C. Cook-Patton, et al.,2017. Citizen science can improve conservation science, natural resource management, and environmental protection. Biological Conservation Vol. 208, pp. 15–28.
Soil erosion

Centre for Research in Environment and Society (CeRES)

Applying innovative methods and approaches to research on society–environment interactions, environmental governance, and past, present and future environmental processes and change, which transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS)

CRISPS brings together a vibrant community of transdisciplinary researchers, working towards addressing the challenge of sustainably feeding a global population of 9 billion. Founded upon research excellence in aquaculture, agricultural technology and soil health, and underpinned by investment in cutting-edge facilities, the Centre will create the critical mass required to ensure impactful research and real-world deployment in the UK and beyond.
Centre of Research Excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS) lead image showing a hand holding soil and a plant.