Researchers say while mobile technology has proved useful in communicating information such as crop prices and weather information to smallholder farmers in eastern Africa, it has been largely untested in agricultural extension services.
“Using the same resources, training with ICT [information and communication technology] could allow us to reach three to five times as many farmers as the conventional farmer field school approach.”
Claire Allen, Farm Africa
The pilot study — conducted from November 2013 to April 2014in Tanzania by the UK-based Farm Africa — assessed whether the knowledge gained by smallholder farmers mirrored that in traditional farmer field services. The study also assessed the comparative costs of providing the two services.
According to the study’s findings released last month (29 April), hand-held tablet computers used in extension services enable poor and remote farming communities to improve their agricultural skills.
Claire Allen, Farm Africa’s head of programme quality and impact, says the study outlines challenges of the traditional approach in providing high quality extension services to smallholder farmers, specifically issues around timing, flexibility and quality assurance.
“Use of mobile technology would give us greater control over the quality of material reaching farmers …the training content could be viewed by farmers multiple times and allow greater flexibility as to when and how they used it,” she tells SciDev.Net. “Using the same resources, training with ICT [information and communication technology] could allow us to reach three to five times as many farmers as the conventional farmer field school approach.”
The researchers gave tablet computers to ten contact farmers in two villages who grow sesame (Sesamun indicum), an oilseed. Each tablet had modules with key milestones related to the agricultural season and with locally-produced videos on demonstration plots on best practice for each production cycle.
The contact farmers reached 499 sesame farmers with the videos, which replaced the traditional farmer schools whereby extension officers directly meet the farmers and educate them.
“At baseline, knowledge questions were correctly answered by, on average, 36 per cent of respondents,” says the report’s findings. “After the training, the proportion of questions answered correctly in the comparison villages was 71 per cent, while the proportion of correct answers was 78 per cent in the tablet group.”
According to the report, compared to the ICT-enabled training, the conventional training cost around three times more.
Peter Okoth, a Kenya-based consultant in research and agronomy, says both demonstration farms and tablet computers have advantages and disadvantages.
“In the farms the farmer can also work together with the extension officers or scientists while learning and asking questions. Information held in a tablet cannot directly respond to the farmer's questions and concerns,” Okoth says. But Okoth adds that with funding and in combination with knowledge from agricultural extension officers, the ICT intervention could rapidly address many problems and farming challenges.
“The time it takes to initiate and receive the information by the farmer is greatly reduced and thereby introducing efficiency. The person sending the information also is saved from riding or walking long distances to relay the same information,” he says.
Okoth adds that policymakers should consider adopting the intervention to improve smallholder farming in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.