Rapid response system

An SMS service delivers quick answers to farmers’ climate questions

Darlington Kahilu

Farmers in Zambia with climate change questions can now receive quick answers via SMS from a new system developed by the country’s National Agricultural Information Services.

In recent years, the Zambia National Agricultural Information Services (NAIS) has been receiving an increasing number of questions from farmers concerned about unpredictable weather patterns. Farmers are pointing out that sometimes the rains come earlier than usual, and when they do come, they are so heavy that they ruin the work the farmer has done to prepare the land. Sometimes the opposite is the problem and there is too little rain to water the crops.

‘The standard advice we gave in past is no longer relevant,’ says Darlington Kahilu, an agricultural information officer with NAIS. ‘For example, we used to tell farmers to plant their maize seeds as soon as the first rains came. The rains would usually continue for a few weeks and germinate the seeds. But now there could be a dry spell lasting a month or more, killing the new seedlings. The farmers then have to spend precious time and money replanting.’

NAIS uses a mixture of print and electronic media to provide agricultural information. Radio is especially useful, and many farmers listen to programmes in groups, often with an extension worker, and then discuss the issues raised in the broadcast. If they still have questions, they can fill in an evaluation form and send it to the nearest NAIS district office. The district office passes the form to the provincial office, where it is finally sent to the main country office. There, a NAIS radio producer assesses the questions, and contacts relevant specialists in agricultural research institutes and government ministries. Based on their feedback, the producer prepares a response for broadcast in a subsequent radio programme.

The whole process can take up to two months. The farmers who asked the question have to wait all that time before they get an answer. In an effort to speed up the process, the department started to look at alternative methods of delivering the information. ‘We looked at the technology currently available, and saw an opportunity to give farmers the information they needed in a shorter time,’ said Kahilu, a radio programme producer with the NAIS.

Good reception
Together with the International Institute for Communication and Development, and a local software developer, NAIS developed a system, called SMSize to which farmers can send a question via an SMS from a cell phone. The question arrives directly at a server computer at the central office, where the producer researches the answer and sends back the information to the phone of the querying farmer, in the same language as the original request.

‘Instead of taking several weeks, the farmers now get the information within a day or two,’ said Kahilu. ‘We also still use the questions and concerns raised by the farmers to develop material for the radio programmes which will help other farmers facing similar problems.’

Delivering the information to cell phones helps the people living in areas where even radio reception is poor. Cell phones are now so popular that there will be at least one person in every community who owns a phone. Even if the network does not cover that particular village, as soon as someone is in an area with reception, they can send an SMS question and receive an answer that they can then share with the rest of the community.

The farmers pay the cost of sending an SMS to the system, which is currently slightly more expensive than the normal cost of sending an SMS. However, since a single SMS can only carry 160 text characters, the farmer has to pay for two or three SMSes if the question is longer. The information officers also have the challenge of keeping their replies as short as possible, which can be difficult if a more detailed explanation is necessary. The cost of the replies is covered by the department, and NAIS is looking at ways of reducing the cost of sending requests to the system.

NAIS tested SMSize in the northern province of Kasama, and is currently working to expand the project to cover the whole of Zambia. ‘We have already started informing farmers around the country, and alerted the provincial offices, to make them aware of the system and how it works,’ said Kahilu.

NAIS was especially encouraged by the feedback from the Kasama farmers. ‘They told us that they now get a better service delivered in a shorter time,’ said Kahilu. ‘One tomato farmer, Mr Kennedy Kanyanta of Ngoli, pointed out that his crop is especially vulnerable to sudden weather changes. The tomatoes could be destroyed if he had to wait for a month to get the right advice. Now he has the information within days, and can take the appropriate action in time to save the crop.’

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Darlington Kahilu is an agricultural information officer and programme producer with the National Agricultural Information Services in Zambia

29 November 2011

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