4 Ways We Can Better Engage Smallholder Farmers Using ICT

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An essential component for successfully engaging smallholder farmers using technology comes from providing a voice, a dialogue, with the farmers themselves. This coupling of human engagement to information and communication technologies was a core idea debated at the Technology Salon on How Can We Better Engage with Smallholder Farmers?

Over 30 thought leaders exchanged perspectives on how to persuade smallholder farmers to take a risk on development practices, via tools used to communicate with them across disperse rural regions. Each of the methods expressed prove successful in their own right, but when complemented by other approaches, the chances for behavioral change increased among local participants.

Please be sure to register now for the ICTforAg Conference, which will feature multiple conversations on the use of ICT to engage smallholder farmers.

1. FM Radio

Farm Radio International’s approach incorporates one of the oldest and most successful ICT tools: FM radio. Since the early 1900s, farmers worldwide have relied upon radio for crop advice, weather forecasts, and market information. Although essential for many, conventional radio technology has its limitations – it’s a one-way medium of a broadcaster talking to a listener, in addition to programs only being accessible when broadcasted live.

However, when joined with mobile technology, radio programming can offer two-way communication with listeners, creating more participation and on-demand access. Farmers can use mobile recording devices can send pre-recorded interviews and statements to radio hosts; and farmers can call a specific number anytime to receive a menu of options to listen to pre-recorded audio programming, granting them more of a choice in how they receive information.

Radio story exchange, or radio “theater,” can cover a host of community, gender, and agricultural topics that locals may not know how to approach openly by crafting radio programs with other farmers, which listeners are more likely to trust because they’re local and relatable.

Radio is inexpensive and a sustainable form of technology, yet funders may not consider it “sexy,” it is reliable. And according to one practitioner, even that perception is changing when considering Internet-enabled radio, which is being used in countries like Mali.

2. SMS and IVR

When you think of a two-way communication platform on mobile phones, which is better: Short Messaging Service (SMS), or Interactive Voice Response (IVR)?

Well, if you’re a farmer in Africa, you’re more likely to rely on IVR, according to VOTO Mobile. For development practitioners, IVR is really fascinating; its interactive component is free to the end-user, it can be delivered in the local vernacular, and its push messaging/voice-messaging component can provide richer information to the recipient, and to the development practitioner.

In one of its surveys, VOTO reported that more than 95% of participants wanted IVR over SMS, which was not seen as effective. In addition, the recipient usually pays for respondent SMS tests that create a hidden cost. VOTO also found that with IVR people answer more questions; stay on the phone longer, with fewer barriers to participant engagement. Just as the case with Farm Radio International, this offers participants greater engagement.

VOTO Mobile does a lot of testing of content with its partners in crafting messages for target audiences – male or female, old or young – to increase participation and reach. The voice of a familiar community health worker, heard over the phone, is trusted and provides a safe communications space – even when recorded. VOTO Mobile is collaborating with its partners to decrease local airtime costs to project sponsors to below even local advertisement rates.

3. Video

In addition to radio and IVR, smallholder farmers are also granted a greater voice via video tools. Digital Green uses local farmers in their core video model. The farmers share video ideas with Digital Green, contributing to the storyboards and scripts, to create hyper-local capacity building videos. With local people on the screen,

Viewers in existing farmer groups and cooperatives watch their friends and peers describer their personal experiences with a new practice, and are asked which practices they would adopt. This approach tends to change behavior better than other, non-video, non-mediated models, by bringing forth an intrinsic incentive that exists among the farmers to improve their lives.

4. Data Analysis

Even after providing a voice for smallholder farmers, at the end of the day money needs to be made in farming, and this can come from having the value chain tracked via multi-modal interactions. SourceTrace Systems tracks the flow of goods from the source to the central processing facilities even in the world’s most remote areas. Data collected on mobile devices can instantly feed sophisticated, powerful flow-of-goods analytics that let businesses respond to the market instantly.

Source Trace works with pre-existing farming cooperatives that distribute inputs like seeds and loans, by helping them collect and analyze data in their farmer-management system. This transparency can determine which farmers are profitable, where to target interventions to avoid waste of time and resources, and which successful farmers can assist for future trainings.

At the end of the day, whether you’re an agriculture extension agent, a teacher, or a community health worker, you want to know the effectiveness of your project. You want to know if any behavior change actually occurred. You also want to know how to take things to the next step.

That goal brought forth two overall themes in this Technology Salon:

  • Trust: “the who” behind that message is very important, the participants need to trust the sources; they need some familiarity with those voices and images conveyed via ICT.
  • You need to incorporate feedback and interactive components of participants’ incredible knowledge and wisdom from the ground. It produces an unparalleled level of ownership in the process, and a stake in the outcomes.

By Corey Quinlan Taylor a freelance writer and editor.

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