Podcasts are helping people progress from subsistence farming in Zimbabwe, says Practical Action researcher Lawrence Gudza.
People in developing countries often lack information that could transform their economic circumstances.
Those in remote parts of Africa, in particular, could benefit from knowledge that would help them move up from subsistence farming to become successful, commercial smallholders.
To do this, they need better, up-to-date information on agricultural production and management, such as how to identify, treat and control livestock diseases and how best to harvest, store and market their crops.
Some African countries, such as Zimbabwe, try to provide this information with agricultural extension services. But these are often under-resourced, uncoordinated and unsustainable. Subsistence farmers rarely receive information when and where they need it, or in a format and language that they understand.
We must look at new channels for disseminating information in countries that have limited road networks and poor communication infrastructure. Many communities have no Internet access, do not receive radio or television signals, and frequently lack even basic electricity.
Methods must be both easy to use and affordable — and they must allow communities to identify their own information needs and share the wealth of indigenous knowledge they possess.
Radio is widely used as the main communication medium for poor regions and has long-reached many grassroots groups in Africa. But in most of the continent it is subject to restrictive regulation and it falls short as a channel for sharing knowledge on demand, because of the transient nature of broadcasts.
In the developed world, podcasts — simple, digital files — are becoming a widely used alternative for distributing audio and video content, particularly on the Internet. Podcasting is readily applied to sharing knowledge and is particularly suited to communities with low levels of literacy.
The technology builds on the advantages that can be offered by information and communication technologies — that they are readily available, accept local voices and languages, are easy to use and can be located in communities.
Podcasting has yet to take off in most of the developing world because of poor communications and electricity infrastructure. But a pilot project in Zimbabwe, run by the development charity Practical Action, shows that it can work for poor farmers, despite these barriers.
The rural district of Mbire is home to small agricultural communities. It has no electricity, land line telephones or mobile phone infrastructure. And its few roads are unpaved and frequently washed away by floods, leaving large areas inaccessible for weeks or months at a time.
Information on crop and livestock production and management has traditionally been compiled by government agencies and disseminated by agricultural extension officers by word of mouth or through brochures and posters (which many cannot read). Local communities had no opportunity to input into process or give feedback.
Practical Action aimed to address these issues with podcasts, noting that successful podcasting — regardless of the setting — is driven by three critical components: people, content and technology.
First, we sought to involve all stakeholders in identifying content to meet local agricultural production and management needs. Government extension officers worked with local authorities, community representatives and other development workers over six months to produce, edit and package 32 podcasts.
The podcasts are in local languages, recorded by members of local communities. To capture listeners' attention, they use different formats, including dialogue.
Then we selected a number of MP3 players to play the podcasts. They are powered by batteries — so the lack of mains electricity in the district is not a problem — and cost US$100 a set. When charged, the batteries last more than 40 hours, which allows up to 2,800 local people to listen to the podcasts over two weeks.
The players are housed in mobile 'knowledge libraries' that anyone can access. Each is issued with two sets of rechargeable batteries that a local partner replaces at least once a fortnight.
This pilot project has certainly had an impact in Mbire in terms of improved agricultural production. Milk production has risen from 0.5 litres to two litres per cow per day and livestock birth rates have increased by 18 per cent. We have seen better management of livestock feed and an increase in new crop varieties and crop productivity.
The project has improved access to knowledge because the whole community can understand the language and people do not need to be literate to access it. Further, the information combines local and scientific knowledge, is available on demand and is unaffected by events such as flooding, or poor communications infrastructure.
Within six months of the project starting, the technology has reached about 75 per cent of the local population. Farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange has also improved, with a large proportion of neighbouring communities also benefiting from the information.
Practical Action is now busy trying to scale up the project, both within Mbire and in five other areas. We also plan to hold awareness meetings with policymakers — with a view to encouraging them to use podcasting in existing agricultural extension services and to consider relaxing restrictions on community radio stations.
Development agencies and donors must focus their efforts on uplifting the livelihoods of the rural poor. To do so, they must acknowledge that information and knowledge, and access to support services and markets, are critical in tackling poverty. Podcasting could prove a useful tool in delivering this.
Lawrence D. Gudza is team leader for Practical Action's Responding to New Technologies programme in Zimbabwe.