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[RIO DE JANEIRO] An online information portal supporting US farmers has been successfully adapted for farmers in the Philippines — an important step in rolling out electronic agricultural extension services in developing countries, a meeting has heard.

Agricultural extension services are a "vital knowledge-sharing [resource]," said speakers at 'E-Extension (or ICT): Transforming & Scaling Agricultural Extension' — a side event at the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation and Sustainable Development, taking place in Rio this week (12–15 June).

Services should be mobilised through information and communications technology (ICT) to promote sustainable development and poverty reduction, they said.

The portal, called 'eXtension', is an open source, online platform for communicating research and best practice in agriculture. It was launched in 2008, and covers a range of topics such as forest farming, invasive species and precision agriculture. 

This article is part of our coverage of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development — the ICSU-led conference that is taking place on 11-15 June 2012, and looking at science and policy before Rio+20

eXtension brings together scientists, farmers, and public and private sector representatives, and provides electronic discussion forums and training webinars.

Now, the Philippine e-Extension Portal has taken eXtension and turned it into a mobile phone call centre, which farmers can access to receive expert advice tailored to local agricultural needs.

Gregory Crosby of the US Department of Agriculture said it might be possible to extend the Philippine model to the rest of the region.

He invited other countries to use elements of the US service to build their own online services. "You cannot just take the US system and throw it into, say,
Malawi," he said. But aspects of it, taken with end-user needs in mind, could work in other countries, he said.

Luis Prochnow, director of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), Brazil, said that "there is no doubt we have to follow this [e-extension] path".

IPNI currently works on two mobile phone applications related to crop nutrients: one will allow farmers to test crops for nutrient deficiency; the other will help them with nutrient budgeting — the assessment of the balance between nutrients entering and leaving the farming system.

A call centre model could work well in India, said Rajeev Chauhan, founder and chairman of the Himalayan Apple Growers' Society.

"In India we have more than 900 million mobile phone users and this number is growing by the day," he said.

Dyborn Chibonga, chief executive of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi, said the system had great potential, particularly in light of the recent growth of mobile phone use in Africa.

"The biggest limitation would be the cost of getting Internet onto the mobile phones of smallholder farmers," he said.

This article is part of our news coverage of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development. Read more in our live blog.