Friday, November 18, 2011

Time to Use ICTs to Strengthen Farm Extension Services

In this time when a lot of emphasis is being laid upon addressing food security and agricultural related problems, there is need to take Farm Extension Services (FES) to the digital level in order to cope with this pressure. FES is fundamental in that it helps farmers to know what and when to plant, how to care for their plants from seed to post-harvest, how to handle fertilizers, pests, and much more. As a result to extension service work, smallholder farmers’ productivity increases.
However, there exists a 2-Pronged Problem whereby too few farmers have access to the extension services they need and on the other hand extension workers cannot easily tap all the information available to help farmers. 
In view of using ICTs to tackle these problems, there exists opportunities worth taking advantage of. In the field of Agricultural development we have;
·        Most AG development projects (including FTF) include some farm extension services.
·        Donors are providing funds to improve FES.
·        Some governments are modernizing their FES.
·        Large buyers, processors know value of providing FES.

Opportunities related to ICT include the following;
  • Access to mobile networks especiallyis expanding dramatically in developing countries –and the poor use cell phones.
  • Mobile networks now handle voice and data applications.
  • Mobile network operators (MNOs) are competing hard for market share, to reduce churn.
Some of the ICT Options available for tapping include; mobile networks, radio, video (stand-alone), GIS, digital cameras and the internet all working in complimentarity with more traditional ones such as:
  • Face to face training
  • Demo plots, more 
For successful use of these ICT tools, there are key challenges calling for consideration, there is need to look at;
·        How to match “channel” with best learning?
·        How best to combine?
·        How to time for greatest impact?
·        Reaching right information fast
·        Digitizing so much information
·        Localizing
·        Scaling: getting beyond “success story”
·        The lure of “cool” devices
·        Using or adapting available platforms, applications, service providers
·        Leveraging governments’ FES
·        Affordable access: telecom enabling environment, use of telecom universal service funds
However, despite the above challenges, there are some encouraging success stories. For the purpose of this post, I’ll mention just two; Uganda’s Grameen Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) and India’s Digital Green
How it works: Trusted (paid) CKWs disseminate AG advice (as well as weather, prices) and collect AG-related info via Android phones.
Who Pays: Grants to Grameen AppLab from MTN-Uganda; Gates Foundation; Earns fees for data collection by same CKWs; experimenting with fees from farmers.
Scale: Some 200 CKWs each serving 500-750 households
Impact: Pilot study showed farmers increased productivity, incomes; plans call for impact assessment over next 12-18 months.
How it works: NGO helps farmers produce modularized videos of farmers demonstrating improved farming practices; videos shown in villages in gathering places via TV/DVD. Feedback loop via IVR (phone).
Who Pays: Developed with funding from Microsoft; Gates Foundation providing 3 year grant. Farmers subscribe as a part of membership in farmer orgs. Not sustainable based on subscription fees alone.
Scale: so far 600 villages with 42,000 farmers
Impact: Microsoft study showed 10 times more cost effective than traditional approaches with AG extension workers; adoption of better practices increased 7 fold. Larger scale control trial now under way.
NB: India (exploring options in sub-Saharan Africa)
     In view of all these, the possibilities are inexhaustible.

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