Extension officers in the Pacific are working with farmers to produce DVDs, printed guides and radio and TV programmes in order strengthen rural economies.
Farming in the Pacific region is under pressure from rapid population growth and intensive land use. The damage to landscapes is evident from the increasing deforestation, soil erosion and falling crop yields, all of which threaten the fragile ecosystems of many island nations. There is a shortage of skilled researchers and extension officers with access to ICTs, and information in general, that are needed to deal with such complex issues. In the face of such challenges, many rural communities have missed out on opportunities to adapt and improve their livelihoods.
In an effort to provide better support to farmers, and the agricultural extension services in the region, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) recently launched the Development of Sustainable Agriculture in the Pacific (DSAP) project. The project works directly with farmers to identify and test methods for increasing farm production, and trains extension workers to use ICTs to record, document and replicate successful practices used throughout Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.
An important component of the DSAP project is the continual involvement and participation of farming communities. In early consultations, the project team asked groups of farmers to identify what specific information they needed and how they would like to receive it. Communities across the region said that they would prefer face-to-face communication with extension officers who should visit regularly to give workshops and practical demonstrations. When the officers leave, they should distribute printed materials, written in the local language, based on the information they had just shared. If such personal visits were not possible, then radio and TV programmes or DVDs should be used to support the work of extension officers.
The project put these ideas into practice and now, between extension visits, farmers are encouraged to try out the suggested methods, technologies and solutions for themselves. They are assisted by local extension staff who record the feedback and new information, often using a digital video camera, which is then compiled and incorporated into future extension materials.
By involving farmers at all stages in the process, the DSAP project hopes to be able to deliver the right information in the right way. If, for example, a community identifies pest and diseases in watermelons as a pressing issue, the project provides relevant materials that the extension officers can distribute during their next visit. But the team is careful not to produce new material on all issues raised by the communities. They first check with the information departments in the region’s agriculture ministries to see if printed materials are already available, and update and reprint them if necessary.
But physical and environmental conditions vary enormously across the Pacific region, so that one single publication, radio or TV programme will not suit every situation. What is relevant for farmers in the mountains of Papua New Guinea will not necessarily work for those in the low-lying coral atolls of Kiribati. All farmers, however, share the same need for information that will help them address their concerns about declining soil fertility, about the pests and diseases that affect particular crops and vegetables, and about the safe use of chemical fertilizers. So the information produced by the project is shared with all countries and, depending on the technology used, the individual extension services adapt the information to their own specific needs.
Because communities requested their information in a variety of media, the project had to train the extension officers in each country to produce high-quality material in formats that could be easily used. Staff from the various extension services attended a range of courses to develop their skills, including how to use computers and digital cameras, as well as effective communication techniques. They learned how to produce printed publications using desktop publishing software, produce videos and how to make use of more traditional media – radio, TV and newspapers – as tools for communication.
Project staff have now produced several promotional DVDs demonstrating how to set up low-cost irrigation systems and composting processes, and advocating the use of organic pesticides. Individual country teams are also encouraged to work with local broadcasters in order to reach larger audiences. DSAP Tonga, for example, hired a film crew from the Tonga Broadcasting Commission to produce a TV programme on the benefits of velvet bean and simple irrigation systems, which has been broadcast twice on national television. Project staff in Wallis and Futuna have also been involved in producing TV programmes on market gardening, while other country offices are producing weekly radio programmes on agricultural topics.
The DSAP project has also established eight resource centres across the region. Although they vary in size, ranging from a desk in the corner of an office to an entire room within the agriculture ministry, all the centres are based in rural areas. They are equipped with computers and printers, and employ local staff who have received specialized training on how to access information and produce new printed materials. The centres are open to farmers and extension officers, and so offer another opportunity for community members to interact with project staff.
The results of the project so far have been very encouraging. In Tonga, for example, farmers identified a shortage of water as a major factor that was limiting crop production. Using video and other materials produced by the project, extension officers were able to demonstrate a low-cost bucket drip irrigation system that minimizes the use of water. The farmers were impressed with the results and have since adapted the system to irrigate their land more effectively.
In Morobe province, Papua New Guinea, the project is promoting the commercialization of taro, a vegetable that has long been grown as a subsistence crop. In Fiji, farmers from Tilivalevu village got together to revive traditional communal group-planting techniques and made FJ$ 22,000 (US$ 10,000) from their first taro harvest. There are now 21 semi-commercial taro plots around the village, a significant increase on the three that existed at the start of the project.
But it is often the small success stories that provide the greatest inspiration for the project staff. One such story involved Atanasia, the mother of 12 children, from Wallis and Futuna. After applying advice from extension officers she started growing some extra vegetables for sale, and with the money she made she was finally able to buy her first refrigerator.
Much of the success of the DSAP project, however, has come from the improved cooperation between the extension services of the participating countries and their collaboration with NGOs supporting rural development in the Pacific. The project has supplied equipment and ICT training to encourage colleagues to keep in touch, and the staff now regularly use email, phones, faxes and, of course, face-to-face meetings to communicate their stories and share experiences. Technology has helped to strengthen the links between country offices, as well as to build networks linking community groups, farmer groups and other information providers, including local health centres and schools.
In the process of expanding these efforts to deliver information to farming communities across the region, the DSAP project will continue to develop the skills of regional and national project staff and extension officers. The continued use of a wide range of ICTs, as well as radio, TV and printed media, is vital to the success of the project in promoting sustainable agriculture among farmers in the Pacific region.
Bernadette Masianini is a former agricultural information officer for the Development of Sustainable Agriculture in the Pacific project, and Mereani Rokotuibau is a graduate research and extension assistant for DSAP in Fiji. Special thanks go to Dr Danny Hunter, former DSAP project team leader.