Borderless: Bringing scientific knowledge to those who need it most

When destructive insects threatened cowpea harvests throughout West Africa, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support program —now the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab—came to help

Holding SAWBO sign

When destructive insects threatened cowpea harvests throughout West Africa, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support program —now the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab—came to help. Working with local farmers in Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger, the research team, which included Julia Bello-Bravo and Barry Pittendrigh, then both from the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign, had at their disposal solutions farmers could implement themselves that already fit with their current cultural practices.

Previous researchers had shown that by hermetically sealing cowpeas in layers of plastic bags, farmers could not only insulate their crop from outside pests but could also slow the devel­opment of those that already made their way into the cowpeas, reducing their reproduction and causing early deaths. The team also found that farmers could collect the seeds of the neem tree, ubiquitous in the region, and grind, soak and strain them to create a natural insecticide without any health or environmental complications. Applying this substance at various intervals throughout the growing season reduced the presence of all pests in the crop, increasing yields, and therefore profits, across the board.

Developing the solutions was only half the battle, however. Getting them into the hands of farmers and teaching them how to implement them presented another challenge entirely.

“I’ll never forget sitting in the office of one of our collaborators in Niger, shortly before he had to give an extension talk to some farmers,” Pittendrigh recalled. “They ran out of printer ink, so they couldn’t run off any copies of the printed materials we had prepared. That’s when Julia and I realized we had to find some other way of presenting this educational content.”

Roughly 80 percent of the population of the developing world now has access to mobile phones. Since the early 2000s, mobile phone technology has steadily expanded across the African continent, initially in urban centers, but now increasingly common in rural regions, as well. In this, Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh saw an opportunity to educate their stakeholders without being forced to rely on easily exhausted supplies such as printer ink.

By creating web-based videos in local lan­guages, the researchers could present farmers with educational materials that could be downloaded directly to phones and viewed at any time, with information in the form of animations that demonstrated the techniques.

“Originally, we used this specifically for teaching farmers about cowpea pest control, but we soon realized we could apply it to just about any subject,” Pittendrigh said. “It just hit us that we had this sustainable way of sharing all these great ideas with the people who could best use them.”

That was in 2011. Six years later, Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh, now faculty members at MSU, have built upon their original idea and expanded it into an educational program that boasts hundreds of videos in dozens of languages covering a range of topics in agriculture, economics, health and women’s empowerment. Called Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), the program has been used by governments, uni­versities, nongovernmental organizations and others to help bridge the gap between research and the people who most need it.

“Many of our projects have become integrated into existing educational systems,” Bello-Bravo said. “We’re firm believers in the land-grant mission, and so it’s very rewarding to have such an opportunity to live out that mission and have a positive impact on people.”

Rewarding as they are, producing SAWBO animations is no easy feat. In fact, Pittendrigh said, creating them is about as time-consuming as preparing a scientific paper for peer review.

It begins with a topic, one often determined by a combination of community need and the practicalities of funding. For example in 2016, the CURE Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, approached SAWBO for animations centered on hip dysplasia. As early diagnosis is critical in remediating the condition, CURE hoped to help parents identify signs of it in infants so they could be treated.

Once chosen, Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh assemble a team of global experts on that topic, who begin a months-long dialogue with the end goal of determining a unified message that combines the best knowledge, strategies and techniques available to help resolve the issue at hand.

“Many communities don’t have access to unified messages on various topics, so there’s often a lot of confusion about how they should proceed,” Pittendrigh explained. “Our experts come together and agree on a common message, one that reflects the best way to tackle the subject at hand.”

Once the message is crafted, it is time to produce the animation itself. SAWBO is connected with animators from around the globe. Some were sought out by the SAWBO team for their specific expertise, while others came to SAWBO because of the work the program was doing.

Neal Sternecky, an animator behind the 1996 film Space Jam and numerous other projects from Warner Bros., Disney and other entertainment companies, volunteered to help create the hip dysplasia videos, in part because of how the condition had affected his own family.

“Consulting on the hip dysplasia video was especially meaningful to me, since both of my twin daughters had the condition as infants,” Sternecky said in a SAWBO testimonial. “Early treatment led to their complete recovery. Avid runners, they both ran the Chicago Marathon in 2015.”

Upon completion, the animations are dis­tributed free to the public. The hip dysplasia videos were integrated into the educational programs at CURE in March 2017, and they are currently being spread to other partner groups across Ethiopia.

“By the time one of our animations is completed, we have a highly accurate product that reflects the thinking of global experts,” Pittendrigh said. “The resulting materials are distributed for free, solely for the common good.”


From dengue fever in the Kingdom of Tonga to Ebola in Sierra Leone and survival gardening in Haiti, SAWBO videos are deployed around the globe. Every month, over 50,000 people watch SAWBO videos on YouTube alone. Conducting research to assess the impact of the animations, as well as to find ways to improve that impact in the future, is a major focus of SAWBO.

SAWBO represents a critical set of research tools and unique researchable ecosystem, allowing Bello-Bravo to ask hypothesis-driven questions with practical applications for global engagement as it relates to agriculture, food, and health.

“I do a lot of research around all aspects of the program,” Bello-Bravo said. “I conduct focus groups at the local level in order to better understand how to make videos that reflect their cultural contexts and optimize the adoption of the techniques they describe.”

Bello-Bravo has published multiple papers and book chapters demonstrating the impact SAWBO has on learning gains in local populations, as well as the spill-over effect of adoption of the ideas the animations present.

The combination of research and outreach is working. A four-year study by Bello-Bravo in Mozambique found that, for a particular animation focusing on the hermetic storage of beans, 90 percent of the people who watched the video adopted its techniques.

The team’s next phase is to expand the use of their mobile app to allow users to easily browse SAWBO’s online library and download any videos they need in the appropriate language and accent. This will allow them to conveniently view videos wherever they go, even if they are away from wireless networks or cellular service. According to Pittendrigh, it allows a diverse group of people, from educators to farmers, to carry an entire extension system in their pockets.

“The work we’ve been able to do with SAWBO has been incredibly rewarding,” Pittendrigh said. “To see how far it’s come, and how useful it is for people still amazes me.”

Bello-Bravo echoes those thoughts.

“For me, I feel that we are simply doing the right thing, sharing knowledge with people who need it, and learning how to better reach them at the same time,” she said. “We’re learning things from the people of these communities that we’d never have the opportunity to otherwise.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at or call 517-355-1855.

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