Farming methods are traditionally passed down from one generation to the next. Sons and daughters practise tried and tested techniques, learned over many years of working the same land. Neighbouring farmers also help each other by passing on tips and hints on how to fatten livestock or get better crops. But over time the land changes. The soil washes away and loses its nutrients; one river dries up while another bursts its banks; the forest disappears and, over the years, more and more people have to live off the same piece of land.
Farmers, therefore, continually need information to get the best results from their hard work. They need to know how they can adapt to environmental changes, to increased pressure on the land and to compete on equal terms with other producers. Small-scale farmers especially, need to work together to share ideas and resources. And many of them are using ICTs to keep in touch.
Radio has been a popular method of communicating and distributing agricultural information for many years. The medium is very effective in providing advice to farmers, even those living in remote areas, without cost to the listener. But it has always been difficult for listeners to interact with radio, to share their views over the airwaves.
A project run by Farm Radio International, called the African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI), is now looking at ways to involve farmers and rural communities in the process of making radio programmes. The project has been working with broadcasters in five African countries to test how they can use ICTs to gather information from farmers and agricultural experts.
With small, inexpensive MP3 players, the broadcasters record interviews with farmers, giving them the chance to discuss the issues that affect them or even describe successful growing or pest control techniques. The radio station then broadcasts these details to the wider community, enabling farmers to learn from those facing similar problems.
The participating broadcasters are investigating ways to address the concerns of farmers in their communities. After a particular issue has been raised, the programme maker calls an expert and, if necessary, records the interview using the MP3 player. The expert’s advice is then broadcast to all the farmers in the area. The AFRRI radio stations are also experimenting with various means of receiving feedback from listeners via mobile phone, so that, for example, farmers can call or send SMS messages to dedicated low-cost numbers.
In Ethiopia, the Improving Productivity and Market Success (IPMS) project has had good results with locally produced video. The project has equipped 28 district information centres with computers, TVs and DVD players. Some of the centres also have video recording equipment, which they use to document local agricultural practices used by farmers. The recordings are then saved onto CDs or DVDs and distributed to the other centres.
Video has also proven very useful in the Pacific region where the Development of Sustainable Agriculture in the Pacific (DSAP) project has produced DVDs on topics such as low-cost irrigation systems, composting and the use of organic pesticides. Because of the huge distances between the 16 participating countries, internet, email and radio have also been important in supporting collaboration between the various extension and agricultural agencies.
One vital aspect that all these initiatives emphasize is the need to work together with rural communities, either to determine which farm practices are most successful, or to research problem areas. And each project tries to use the most efficient method to reach their audience.
Being involved in regular exchanges of information helps farmers to develop their businesses, grow new crops and get better results from existing ones, to access new markets and to learn about advanced methods of food processing and storage. All of which is invaluable to small-scale producers, as even a slight improvement in productivity can lead to a marked increase in income, giving a boost to the local economy and overall food security in rural areas.