ICTs have generally been viewed as a tool that can bring about sustainable change in agricultural and rural development in Africa. The challenge has been how to teach a largely illiterate sector to read and write, two key skills needed to use ICT tools such as computers and cell phones. The general consensus among development professionals therefore has been that farmers need intermediaries to effectively benefit from ICTs.
This solution brings with it its own extraordinary challenge: how to persuade farmers to once again rely on their educated community members – precisely those who had deceived them in the past because they could not read and write. It has been my belief that illiterate farmers could use ICT tools themselves, and in 2009 I set out to prove that this was possible.
I am an experienced ICT trainer and have trained many different people, including primary school children, junior and senior high school and university students. I have even trained members of parliament how to use their laptops. I have never doubted my ability to deliver. All I needed was to prepare the relevant material, rehearse it and then go and deliver it.
I have always taught in English, and this has never been a problem. So I was eager to take up the challenge of teaching computer skills to illiterate so they could access an online video and audio library without relying on other people’s help. But how would I teach these people who had never seen the inside of a school to understand and use ICT tools? How would I use their vernacular to teach them a completely alien computer terminology? This represented a major challenge that needed a lot of thinking – beyond my normal way of doing things.
Capacity building for the illiterate
As an ICT consultant, I was asked to work on this project and train a group of illiterate farmers computer skills so they could access agricultural information. These were men and women between the ages of 40 to 50, most of whom had never seen a computer before.
For the project, we developed a web-based tool that streamed video and voice on demand stored in a database that had been set up in a community information centre. The videos and audios demonstrated various good agricultural practices such as composting, planting distances, fertilizer application, pest control and many other topics. A computer with a user-friendly interface gave access to the database and the materials that had been stored in it. Users had to interact directly with the database and therefore needed a basic understanding of how to use computers and the interface to call up the video and audio material they want to look at or listen to.
At first a lot of people were very sceptical about the venture. However, I thought it was possible and became determined to give it a try. I strongly believed that ICTs were not just for the educated and that the ‘uneducated’ too should have the opportunity to use computers and the database with educational videos and audios.
All they needed was some training. They should at least know what the computer and other ICT tools were used for and how they worked. We decided that they first needed some literacy lessons to enable them to identify letters and read and pronounce simple words, especially in their local language.
The ICT training
The ICT course itself was basically a hands-on computer training. We introduced our trainees to the various components of a computer, after which we took them through an extensive training in using the computer. The most interesting part of this training was that these adult learners devised their own methods for mastering skills like ‘clicking’ and ‘double-clicking’.
Using the keyboard was a major challenge, however. They had difficulty typing their usernames and passwords. But after two weeks of training, all trainees had mastered sufficient skills to use computers effectively, and two months later they were able to fully use computers to access the videos and other materials in the database.
The training boosted the trainees’ confidence in using ICT tools and they are now using a mix of ICT tools to access information that could enhance their livelihoods. They now listen to agricultural radio programmes and use their cell phones to interact with the radio presenters, asking them questions and contributing to discussions. They also use their cell phones to obtain market information such as commodity prices from the major markets in the country. On the basis of that information they can now decide which market to bring their produce to, and they have more leverage to negotiate for better prices.
At the moment, the use of ICTs is predominantly the preserve of the educated. However, many uneducated people could use them too if they only were less shy. Our project has demonstrated that if they are properly trained they can use them effectively. The number of web applications that could help to enhance agricultural development in Africa is rapidly growing. If we limit the use of these apps to just the educated, we can wait a long time before there is any growth in agricultural productivity in Africa, because the majority of farmers in our countries are uneducated. That’s why it is important to continue training illiterate farmers to effectively use computers, cell phones and other ICT devices so they can improve their livelihoods.
Edward Addo-Dankwa ( firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a national value chain development officer at the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. He has organised and facilitated many capacity development programmes leading to the training of over 700 of the ministry’s staff and other actors all over Ghana. Addo-Dankwa has also developed various training materials for value chain development in Ghana and led ‘training of trainers’ workshops in Ghana.