Audio is an effective way of delivering agricultural extension information
If you wish to deliver agriculture extension information to rural farmers, an audio-based solution may be your most effective option, particularly if you are trying to reach the more marginalised or vulnerable farmers. Both Literacy Bridge and Farm Radio International (FRI) have been using audio to reach farmers for seven years and 35 years, respectively. FRI delivers audio content through its network of radio station partners, while Literacy Bridge does the same through its Talking Book device, a robust audio device designed to deliver health and agriculture recordings to rural villages.
Using audio for oral cultures
Most of the world’s poorest farmers have never had the chance to attend let alone complete basic education and are therefore illiterate. Not only does this mean they cannot read, but they are also unable to take notes when they have the rare opportunity to learn from an extension visit. Many literate farmers in oral cultures also prefer to learn through audio compared with video or text.
FRI and Literacy Bridge both create audio recordings of expert interviews as well as peer endorsements, songs, stories and dramas. Providing the same information in a variety of audio forms helps farmers to understand and retain more than through a single format.
When delivering this sort of audio content it is critical to get feedback and ideas from farmers. One of the ways FRI does this is by creating radio programmes that include a period of time for listeners to call and text-in to engage in a discussion with the agriculture experts or participate in radio polls. Literacy Bridge’s Talking Books do not allow for this type of live discussion. Instead they allow farmers to record their questions and comments, which are reviewed monthly to guide future content. The Talking Book also captures usage statistics to allow Literacy Bridge and its partners to see exactly which messages are most popular and which communities are most engaged.
Running a successful agriculture education programme requires more than great technology and content. FRI and Literacy Bridge both work with community listener groups to engage listeners and promote group discussion. This is also a forum for the occasional need for a visual display. However, in oral cultures, visual display is far less important for most topics than in other cultures.
In some programmes, such as Literacy Bridge’s collaboration with UNICEF in Ghana, Talking Books loaded with seasonally applicable content are provided to each and every household in a village for one week every month. This allows men, women, and children to listen and learn when their time allows. The approach has consistently demonstrated four to eight hours of listening per family each week. However, this type of programme has additional expenses compared to group engagement.
Why not audio over traditional mobile devices?
If the majority of your target audience owns a smartphone, providing audio over smartphone along with video enhancements would be worth exploring, but there are a few challenges to this approach. Smartphones must be kept charged in villages without electricity. Smartphones also have a limited volume that most groups strain to hear in the typical outside village listening environment. But the biggest problem with smartphones today is that many organisations are trying to reach people who do not already own them, and the cost of equipping each person with a smartphone is many times the expense of either radio or Talking Books.
Feature phones are much more commonly owned, but they have additional drawbacks. Mobile phone programs typically use content one minute in length. This can be enough to disseminate a concept, but is no substitute for the depth of instruction that one can achieve through a 10- or 20-minute interview or drama. There are three reasons typically given for why mobile voice content does not go much beyond one minute: the per-minute cost of a voice call, the administration of the billing schemes used by mobile network operators and the usability concerns from listeners after holding a phone to their ear for more than a few minutes.
In addition, while phone ownership may be relatively high across a district, one will find that the most marginalised people are the ones who do not own their own mobile phone. This is why the government of Ghana’s 2010 census showed that only 11% of women in rural areas of the northern half of the country owned their own phone. Even today, many women rely on the use of their husband’s phone, which inherently leads to reduced access to knowledge delivered over a mobile phone.
In time, many of these issues will slowly be resolved and more and more audio content produced today for radio and Talking Books will be repurposed for mobile phones. But for hundreds of millions of people today, these realities have made radio and Talking Books a much more usable and cost-effective solution.