THE BLOG
08/21/2013 01:54 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

For African Farmers, Talk Is Cheap But Information Is Priceless

The expansion of the internet, mobile phones and television means that most of us are now exposed to immense amounts of information -- equivalent to 174 newspapers worth of data per day, five times as much as in 1986.

In little more than one generation, we have become connected, not only to a wide variety of media and knowledge outlets but to vast numbers of other people. Yet while we may take this information for granted, even feel overwhelmed at times, for many in the world information is not easy to come by.

Information Scarcity

Small-scale farmers in rural Africa are often isolated from knowledge sources that could boost their food production, nutrition and incomes, in order to break the cycle of poverty. African smallholder farmers are estimated to produce at only 10 percent of their potential, in part due to lack of access to information on, for example, market prices, weather and pests and diseases, all of which are predicted to become less favorable to farming in the future. In Uganda, the decline of government extension services in the 1990s, whereby government agents would regularly meet, train and advise farmers all over the country, meant the loss of a valuable information delivery service.

But now others, civil society and the private sector alike, are beginning to fill this gap by using modern technology to communicate what once was done through traditional extension learning.

Bridging the gap

One such example is the Community Knowledge Workers (CKW) Programme in Uganda, which Agriculture for Impact recently visited. A new initiative run by the Grameen Foundation since 2010, the programme consists of a network of CKWs, farmers who are trained to use smart phone applications in order to provide fellow farmers in their area with relevant and actionable agricultural information. The mobile database contains information for over 42 crops and 10 livestock species, based on expert knowledge and further shaped by feedback from the farmers themselves.

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CKWs, once nominated by their peers, attend a three day training programme and are given a smart phone, solar charger and bicycle. They pay for this package over 2 years in monthly instalments of 20,000 UGS (approximately $8). As Bruce Kisitu, Partnership Development Specialist, said, Grameen Foundation have learnt the hard way that if something is given for free it is not appreciated or taken care of. CKWs are expected to devote 20 percent of their time to the programme, they are farmers first and foremost. If they meet all the monthly targets Grameen sets then they receive an incentive of 60,000 UGS ($23) per month.

Analysis of the programme's impact to date has been impressive. Populations with access to a CKW are selling their crops at prices 37 percent higher than areas without a CKW. The programme boasts greater coverage and more frequent interaction with farmers than under traditional agricultural extension. They have employed 1,200 CKWs, registered nearly 200,000 farmers in 17,000 villages, logged over 1.5 million interactions and, through use of the network as a commercial surveying tool, the programme is 40 percent self-sustaining. 37 percent of CKWs are female although Grameen are aiming for a 50:50 split.

Experiences on the ground

Sitting outside Mr Justo's residence in a small village in the Masindi district of Uganda, the 10 or so CKWs that make up the peer group met, many having travelled some 15 miles to attend. Grameen Foundation encourages all of its CKWs to form local peer groups, who then write their own constitutions and, with the help of the Foundation, initiate group enterprises alongside their CKW duties. Their monthly meeting allows them to assess their group work as well as discuss problems farmers in the area are encountering and report back to a field officer.

At the meeting, the vice chairperson of the group, talked of the value of the database both for their own farming and for the 120 farmers each CKW, on average, connects with. Before the programme started, for example, many farmers believed that a banana tree with a lot of leaves meant it was healthy. Information gained from the Grameen Foundation database taught them to prune leaves on banana trees to ensure nutrients go towards the growth of the fruit rather than the foliage.

In a sense this knowledge has given them confidence, both in their own decision-making and in teaching others. One CKW talked of how his social standing in the community had increased. Before the programme he lacked confidence to address his peers but now felt he could talk to anyone and they would listen, regardless of religion or political leanings. "When I have the phone in my hand, serving the farmer, I feel comfortable and they trust the information."

Access to such an information source is essential. One farmer couldn't understand why his goats were getting pregnant but not giving birth. According to the database, goats, if under fed or undernourished, will absorb a foetus. The CKW was able to point the farmer to a vet who advised on feeding and he now has a healthy breeding herd of goats.

Bugs in the system

But it hasn't all been good experiences. While witnessing a CKW use his phone to help a farmer whose cassava crop was yellowing and rotting indicated the ease with which such plant afflictions could be diagnosed, it was clear that for that farmer the information had come too late. The treatment prescribed was for the crops affected to be destroyed before it spread but his entire crop was already affected, leaving him with fears over his family's food security for the coming year, although preventing him from taking cuttings and perhaps losing any subsequent harvest.

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It also became evident that, as in the west, information flows are not always perfect. Sometimes your WiFi is slow or refuses to connect, sometimes the search terms you use yield unhelpful results, and this is true of the CKW initiative too. Phones can suffer technical problems that need to be fixed while complex problems that fall into multiple search categories can be difficult to diagnose without expert knowledge.

The CKW initiative does aim to address most bugs in the system. Agricultural and other experts are just a phone call away at a call centre CKWs can contact when issues arise. A data validation officer and field officer also maintain regular contact, attending monthly meetings, in the event of any technical or other problems.

And the programme is still a work in progress: they are aiming for 100% self-sufficiency, introducing new apps such as the acreage mapping tool and fertiliser calculator, and they are looking to expand into other countries. The National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) in Uganda has also recently decided to pilot the use of the CKW initiative as part of their own extension system.

Information empowers

Despite problems in the delivery, the value of this information cannot be overestimated. Information is crucial if farmers are to boost lagging productivity seen in much of sub-Saharan Africa, engage more with markets and adapt to coming challenges. Charles Ogang, President of the Uganda National Farmers Federation said that "it is difficult to exploit people when they know how to access information".

Information is priceless because it empowers people to make better decisions but information is only one part of the solution. Farmers also need inputs, land rights and better infrastructure to name a few. Perhaps knowing what they need and finding out where to get it is the first step in this process.