Ezinne Merianchris Emeana a researcher at Coventry University discussed how the SmartAgroecology app is promoting the sharing of agro-ecological knowledge and skills amongst women farmers and extension personnel in Nigeria in order to help them achieve sustainable production and livelihood.
Nigeria is one of many countries experiencing a shift to agro-ecology, which is, the application of ecological processes to agricultural production systems. This is a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and efficient agricultural system. It is based on approaches to farming, which use natural resources with little to zero dependence on agro-chemicals in the production of food for human and animal consumption, and has reduced the effect on the ecosystem. This shift in agriculture practices has now gone digital in Nigeria, with the arrival of the application called, SmartAgroecology. This application promotes the sharing of agro-ecological knowledge-based skills amongst farmers and extension personnel in order to help subsistence farmers achieve sustainable production and livelihood, based on sustainable crop practices and land use.
Given the predominance of subsistence farming in a country like Nigeria and the concerns of food insecurity, the SmartAgroecology app aims to offer a sustainable solution to the farming community. Practically, the app is designed to promote farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-extension personnel interaction and is downloadable from the app stores. The information incorporates pre and post planting practices and management, pre and post-harvesting techniques, the available organic market information and prices of commodities.
As agro-ecology is knowledge intensive, male and female farmers were mobilised under the National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services’ Adopted Village Scheme (southeast Nigeria) and encouraged to combine and share their own traditional knowledge and skills. The farmers shared knowledge on restoring soil fertility and increasing and sustaining crop yield via the mobile-enabled platform as they learn from the updated information with the help of the extension personnel. During the rollout of the application in Nigeria, it became evident that there was a difference in the accessibility and usage of mobile-enabled services amongst the men and women user groups. In terms of accessibility, during the pilot stage, the developers realised that the women being more engaged in food crop farming than cash crops as the men, they had less to spend on mobile-enabled services such as SmartAgroecology. Comparatively men in the community were earning from their sales of cash crop production and could afford mobile services. Similarly, the men were more knowledgeable in the use of information communication technologies (ICT) and therefore downloaded and used the SmartAgroecology app more than their counterparts did. In short, usage was primarily affected by levels of illiteracy, low income and lack of ICT skills and this affected how and whether, at all, the women could engage and benefit from the service.
Despite these challenges, when informed and sensitised to the opportunities available when using the app, the women were enthusiastic about engaging in SmartAgroecology. This taught the developers of the app three key lessons:
- Targeted ICT training should be provided for women farmers, with the aim to empower them to take control of their own information needs, especially information about agro-ecological approaches, which will not only improve the yield but are also cost-effective.
- Training of the trainers is important in order to ensure consistency and comprehension, so farmers do not face difficulties in using the technology
- Face-to-face meetings are still the preferred means of engagement between farmers and extension staff, in large part, due to the high cost of the internet connection and this impacts the uptake of users (and download) of the app.
As the majority of farmers in Africa are subsistence farmers – the highest in the world according to UN 2017 data – it is critical to provide methods to these farmers to carry out sustainable agricultural practices., It is no longer good enough to refer to subsistence farmers as using indigenous methods, therefore, agroecology provides an alternative path to conventional and/or industrial agricultural practices. Yet, as the world goes digital and deals with challenges such as food insecurity and climate change, if female farmers are not targeted in training, they may miss out from apps, information and processes that can benefit them and their livelihoods.