It has taken a village to build PlantVillage—a village that has come together through the numerous and diverse connections Hughes has forged over the past decade. Established with a $120,000 grant from Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences’ Innovative and Transformational Seed Fund, PlantVillage now leverages the expertise of researchers from across the university and partner institutions, as well as agriculturalists and scientists in Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and other countries where it operates. The 210-member team is located in a number of African countries—Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi among them—and has expanded beyond Africa, to places such as Nepal and the U.S. “We’re aiming for 16,000 people in 40 countries by 2025,” Hughes says. PlantVillage works closely with local governments in each country, and Hughes has also inked partnerships with the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps that work to alleviate poverty in different parts of the world.
Since 2019—“That’s when things really took off,” Hughes says—PlantVillage has scooped up millions of dollars in funding from different sources, most notably a five-year, $39 million USAID grant to establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops, which brings together a broad coalition of international experts to collaborate on novel approaches to monitor, predict, and combat current and emerging threats to crops in different parts of Africa, Asia, and Central America. The success of PlantVillage is due largely to Hughes’ drive, says Andrew Read, Evan Pugh Professor of biology and entomology and director of the Huck Institutes, who’s known Hughes since the early 2000s. “David gets out of bed every day thinking about PlantVillage, and I’m pretty sure he thinks about it until he goes to sleep,” Read says. “He is very driven, but not in a way that he’s looking to better himself. He really wants to make the world a better place.”
Yet Read and other colleagues didn’t know what to make of it when Hughes first pitched PlantVillage to the Huck Institutes. “We had a hard time getting our heads around his idea of a land-grant institution in your pocket, of scaling the extension model through the phone,” he says. “David got some pushback from the more traditional parts of the university, who were a little leery about this model.”
Hughes proved his skeptics wrong. In 2021, Newsweek named him to its inaugural list of “America’s Greatest Disruptors,” one of eight “planet protectors” at the forefront of challenging climate change. That same year, he was also on Fast Company’s “most creative people in business” list. These plaudits make him uncomfortable—Hughes usually wears jeans and T-shirts, and he bicycles around State College no matter the weather—even as they draw attention to his work.
Hughes started PlantVillage as a side gig, never expecting it to gain such attention. In fact, he never expected to get an advanced degree, let alone work at a university. Hughes, who grew up in inner city Dublin, was kicked out of school at the age of 15. “Nobody in my family ever finished high school,” he says, and for a time, he believed that he, too, would never complete his formal education. But after working a series of random jobs—as a bicycle courier in Dublin, in construction in the Netherlands, on a horse farm in western Ireland—he went back to high school at the age of 19, easily passed the prerequisite exams for college, and enrolled at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for an undergraduate degree in zoology. He was inspired by BBC legend David Attenborough, whose Sunday nature programs had entranced Hughes since childhood. After a series of fits and starts—and thanks to the encouragement of his wife, Alba Congiu, now a finance officer in the College of Education, whom he met while working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Glasgow—he finished his degree and graduated top of his class.
Hughes earned a Ph.D. in entomology from Oxford, where he worked with world-renowned evolutionary biologists W.D. Hamilton and Richard Dawkins. A Marie Curie Fellowship brought him to Harvard to work at the Museum of Comparative Zoology with Harvard professor Naomi Pierce, a global authority on butterflies. While at Harvard, he also reconnected with Read. “Andrew told me to come and give a talk at Penn State, and I fell in love with the place,” Hughes says. “Growing up as a poor kid, I always loved the idea of a university that held democratic principles of an education available to all. The land-grants are, in my experience of exclusion and inclusion in the world’s most prestigious places of learning, the greatest types of universities ever created.”
He is best known for his study of zombie ants, whose bodies are taken over by a particular fungus that feeds on them from within and multiplies into new cells. Even before HBO’s recent hit series, The Last of Us, in which society is upended by a similar fungus that has evolved to infect humans (Hughes was a consultant for the video game on which the show is based), he was flooded with requests for zombie ant interviews. He’s also consulted on Hollywood movies such as World War Z and is always more than happy to speak about zombies, ants, and zombie ants. But, he says, “I take every opportunity I get to plug PlantVillage.”
PlantVillage is Hughes’ passion, an all-consuming labor of love. (Whatever spare time he gets is spent with his wife and two teenage kids.) He’s always connected via WhatsApp to its global team, available to provide guidance or direction and to answer any question, whether it’s coming from Kenya, Nepal, Burkina Faso, or any other country where PlantVillage operates. “My goal is to empower people,” he says.
In the decade since PlantVillage’s launch, key technology—from AI and drones to mobile spectrophotometry—has become more widely accessible, and PlantVillage’s systems are now in widespread use across Africa. In 2020—shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit—an infestation of desert locusts descended on Ethiopia, which ranks as one of the hungriest countries in the world and where a long-running civil conflict further imperils the population. The plague, the worst of its kind in Ethiopia in 25 years, spread to Kenya, threatening the food supply for close to 40 million people across the region. “We had local people using our phones that connected to satellites, and they could report locust sightings directly to the FAO,” Hughes says. Air and ground control teams were able to use such information to target and destroy swarms, and PlantVillage played an important role in delivering warning messages through radio, TV, and text messaging that reached 16 million Ethiopian and Kenyan farmers in five local languages—and saved 40 million people from starvation (see "AI in the Sky").
But technology is only one facet of this endeavor. For Hughes, PlantVillage is really about its people, particularly the field corps of extension workers—the “Dream Team,” as they’re known to everyone in PlantVillage—who provide on-the-ground training and assistance to farmers. Africa is a young continent, home to plenty of university graduates with agricultural degrees who are eager to work. PlantVillage trains them in every aspect of extension work, Hughes says, educating them on fertilizers and biopesticides and familiarizing them with AI and cloud-based technology. “They have young brains that can figure out new ways to do things,” Hughes says, “and young knees to work side by side with farmers in the fields and help them co-create solutions.”
For these young people, a career with PlantVillage offers good prospects. But Dream Team members such as 27-year-old Mercyline Tsuma from Kilifi County in the north of Kenya also share Hughes’ vision and his desire to democratize agricultural knowledge. “Knowledge is power,” says Tsuma. Like most Dream Team members, she grew up on a farm watching her family often struggle to grow a successful harvest and make ends meet. “David chose a really good model of making sure that all this good knowledge reaches the farmer level. The Dream Team is here to bridge the gap and make an impact.”
For 27-year-old Daniel Njapit, a Dream Team member working in Narok County—home to Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara reserve—the farmers he helps are not just farmers. “They are our parents,” he says. “Where I come from, a good number of people are illiterate. We are the bridge—and we’re not doing this just because it’s work. We do it because it’s passion. It’s commitment.”
Every day, Tsuma, Njapit, and other Dream Team members in Kenya get on their PlantVillage-issued motorbikes and set out to visit farmers in different parts of the country to help them understand what’s going on with their crops. They teach farmers how to use their smartphones for everything from assessing crop health to checking weather patterns, and they’re tasked with identifying viable markets where farmers can sell their crops. (Sustainable commerce is also an important part of the PlantVillage model.) They educate farmers about organic fertilizers such as Biochar, a carbon compound that enriches compost and improves plant health and yield. They encourage farmers to plant crops they’ve never planted, such as the drought-resistant cassava, which is also an excellent source of carbohydrates.
“We see so many places in drought,” Tsuma says. “Our farmers have been [growing] maize, and they always fail. When PlantVillage came in, we were able to teach them better technologies, but we’ve also been preaching cassava because it’s drought-tolerant. Some farmers are now saying, ‘When it comes to next season, I’m not going to do maize, I’m going to do cassava because with less input I can get more produce.’”
Cassava has changed things for Rose Echakari, a retired schoolteacher and mother of six in Busia, a county in the western part of Kenya, who began farming in 2020 after her husband died. PlantVillage’s Dream Team trained her on how to plant and maintain cassava on her 5-acre farm, she says—not just for her family’s consumption, but also for sale. The team also taught her how to plant trees in such a way as to help harvest rainwater, and how to establish a eucalyptus tree nursery.
For Mwinyi Haji, PlantVillage has been a game changer. For years, he’d been struggling with pests attacking the mango trees he’d planted on his 120-acre farm located close to the coastal town of Mtwapa, Kenya. They were hellbent, it seemed, on decimating his mangoes before he could harvest any. No matter what he tried, he could not get rid of them. “The problem made me sleepless,” he says. “I did not know what to do.”
A neighbor told Haji about PlantVillage and convinced him to travel to a meeting taking place about 12 miles from Haji’s farm. There, Haji met Dream Team members who suggested a particular biopesticide to spray over the mango flowers, and that he apply manure around the trees. He followed their advice carefully, and it worked: His 120 trees went on to yield a bumper crop of 6,500 healthy mangoes.