Have mobile phones replaced extension officers as the main source of information for farmers?
There are certainly far fewer agricultural extension officers, either from government departments or other organizations, than there used to be, but mobile phones haven’t replaced them. In fact, phones complement their work. Extension officers often don’t have the very latest information, so they use their mobile phones to access agricultural services to get the most up-to-date details and pass them on to the farmer.
Extension officers still have an important role to play. It can be expensive for a farmer to directly access some information services. If the extension officer already has that information, he or she can easily pass it on without the farmer having to pay extra. Farmers also often need more explanation than is provided by the information service and most prefer to have their questions answered by another person. Human interaction remains very important.
Are other types of technology also needed to deliver information to farmers?
NAFIS, the National Farmers Information Service here in Kenya, conducted a study that showed the most effective way to get information to farmers is to use a range of technologies; radio, internet and mobile phones together with extension officers. Each of these information sources have their limitations – SMS can only carry 160 characters per message; the web can provide a great amount of information, but it isn’t as readily available as a mobile phone. If all these technologies are available together they can complement and support each other. The farmer can then access the information in a way that suits that individual best.
For example, you can use SMS to tell people what time a certain radio programme begins. The same information broadcast in that radio programme can be made available through a telephone dial-up system, plus the audio and text can be put on the web. Print publications are also needed as farmers can keep them and access them when needed, while voice services can reach people with lower literacy abilities or who would prefer their information in another language.
Would one farmer access all of these information sources? Or is each type of technology targeted to different people?
Farmers use different services for different things. SMS is very useful for delivering market information; the farmer can easily see, for example, the price of beans at the nearest market. 160 characters are enough to provide that information. But if the farmer wants more detailed information then he or she would probably have to use one of the other methods.
What future developments can we expect?
I think more services will be speech-based because voice is the natural way to communicate. Mobile phones are popular because people can communicate on a one-to-one basis through speech. The hardware and the programming technology aren’t available yet, but major manufacturers and researchers around the world are working on developing efficient and cost-effective technology that could deliver speech services. Storage systems already exist that can cope with the large amount of data that these services would need, and data transfer systems are already fast enough to deliver them to mobile phones, for example, so it might not take too long to develop such services.
Will farmers still use mobile phones to access their information?
I think they will, yes. It is interesting to see that the only piece of technology in many rural households, apart from a radio, is a mobile phone. And the phone is becoming even more important to individuals for the simple reason that it is easier to carry than, for example, a radio. In fact, many mobile phones also have a radio so people are already carrying both technologies in one device. People also increasingly use the phone for banking services, to buy and sell their products, to save money and get credit.
Farmers are comfortable using their phones to get market, weather and other information. A phone is easier to use than a computer, cheaper and more easily accessible. The internet is also increasingly available on phones, and while it is expensive now, I think that will continue to expand. And, as researchers develop more services to bring information from the web as speech, I cannot imagine that farmers will prefer to carry a computer than a phone to their field. All these technologies are naturally converging to fit into a mobile phone. Phones have radio, text, internet, cameras, as well as audio and voice capabilities, and I am convinced that speech will become the dominant service in the years to come.
Is it worth the extra expense for a farmer to invest in a mobile phone and pay for information services?
Yes, definitely. In fact, if the network went down for a day it would be very disruptive for farmers. In the last five years, farmers have steadily become used to using their mobile phones to get market prices, and find out where to buy fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers access these services every day; they call buyers, transporters and extension services. But perhaps most importantly, farmers use their phones to call other farmers to discuss their crops and their business with someone in a similar situation.
is a senior lecturer in electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Nairobi ( www.uonbi.ac.ke ) and managing director of Teknobyte ( www.teknobyte.co.ke )
National Farmer Information Service
NAFIS provides agricultural and livestock information to Kenyan farmers via the phone and on the web.