Henning Knipschild and Vivienne Oguya explain how CTA's web based question and answer service helps farmers to obtain expert advice.
CTA offers a number of services to improve access to information for agricultural and rural development for its partners in ACP countries. One of these is the Question and Answer Service (QAS), which was established in 1985 to provide information and documentation to ACP partners on demand. The service was initially offered on a centralized basis from CTA’s headquarters in Wageningen, but following an evaluation in 1997, it was recommended that the service be decentralized to ACP countries. CTA then developed a strategy to establish a number of QAS centres in the three ACP regions.
ACP QAS centres
The QAS centres serve a broad range of users, including policy makers, researchers, lecturers, students and farmers. The main activities of the centres are to source and collect information. They also respond to users’ requests for information in the form of verbal or written answers, bibliographic references or full-text documents, as well as advice on sources of finance and training opportunities.
So far, the QAS has mainly been paper based, but CTA recognizes that ICTs could be effectively used to coordinate the questions and the distribution of responses. Information is a vital resource for development and ICT tools have proved invaluable in harvesting information. As more and more information is stored in online databases accessible through the Internet, CTA is now exploring ways to harness the opportunities offered by the Internet to deliver this knowledge to farmers in rural communities in ACP countries.
In collaboration with the German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture (ZADI) CTA is in the process of introducing a web-based communication and information system to complement its conventional paperbased QAS. Following a successful pilot project carried out in Benin in 2004, CTA now plans to introduce the system – Agricultural Information for the Development of Eastern Africa (AGRIDEA) – to its Eastern African QAS centre during 2005.
The web-based QAS is a demanddriven, open and decentralized communication and information system. Farmers and experts communicate by email, and their questions and answers are documented in an online database, developed and maintained by ZADI, which is accessible through the website of ZADI's Rural Universe Network (RUN).
Beyond the main objective of providing farmers with accurate and timely information, the QAS centres seek to mobilize local expertise, and to make relevant content available online. In association with local Internet cafes or telecentres, the centres have introduced a voucher system that targets the members of isolated farming communities, with the aim of encouraging them to become active participants in the information society. Each QAS centre issues vouchers that farmers can use to request information or advice from an expert. The vouchers are distributed by Rural Information Brokers (RIBs) assigned by the QAS centres or local organizations that are in regular contact with farmers. With these vouchers, farmers can submit questions to the QAS either through the RIBs, or they can visit the local Internet cafe or telecentre and send an email themselves. The vouchers pay for all aspects of the service, including the costs of using the Internet cafes, and for the services of local or national experts. The RIBs then publish the questions and the responses on the RUN website, where each participating community has its own designated 'ejournal'.
QAS in practice
How does the voucher system work? Take the example of Mr Alidou Soulé, a farmer from Akite in Benin. He received a voucher from the owner of an Internet cafe and realized that he could use it to obtain advice about how to deal with a problem he faces on a daily basis. Using his voucher, Mr Soulé asked a question about how to get rid of Striga, a parasitic plant that has invaded his fields. He soon received a response from Mr Mathias Kpanou, who provided useful technical advice on how to deal with the weed.
Mr Kpanou is just one of the many national experts who are now responding to farmers' questions on the RUN website. The texts of all questions and answers are published on the site, and so are available to other farmers and extension workers who may be encountering similar problems. Mr Kpanou as well as other experts and voluntary specialists are contributing to the system, and so are helping to build up a collection of relevant information arising from the farmers' questions. Mr Kpanou, the Internet cafes and other contributors to the service are reimbursed for their work and other expenses, but only when the farmer has reviewed the response and evaluated its usefulness.
Alidou Soulé’s request and the advice he received from Mr Mathias Kpanou can be seen in article 2111. This is one of 156 requests recently published on the RUN website.
Henning Knipschild ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is scientific staff member of the Land and Forestry Information Centre (ILF) of the German Centre for Information and Documentation in Agriculture (ZADI).
Vivienne Oguya ( email@example.com ) is programme coordinator, Strengthening of ACP Information Services, of the Information Products and Services Department of CTA.