Audio conferencing has helped to improve extension services in northern Ghana, and encouraged young people in rural communities to follow a career in agriculture.
The Savannah Young Farmers Network (SYFN) is a youth-led NGO in Ghana that uses ICTs to deliver agricultural and rural advisory services, and promote the active engagement of young people in agriculture. One example of how they do this is their Audio Conferencing for Extension (ACE) project, currently running in selected communities in the Builsa District of northern Ghana.
The project addresses the challenges farmers face with agricultural extension, where services can be irregular, and farmers are not involved in the development of content. Many young farmers feel especially that extension delivery methodologies are not tailored to their specific needs to see agriculture as a business, while the steady decline in productivity leads to the migration of youth to urban areas to look for non-existent jobs.
ACE uses audio conferencing technology to involve farmers in regular meetings with agricultural officers from SYFN, and a wide variety of agricultural extension experts, agronomists, ICT professionals and researchers from various institutions. SYFN currently works with 25 farmer based organisations, covering more than 200 farmers. Each farmer group has an audio conference twice a week, with the option to call for an emergency meeting, if the need arises.
Community agricultural information (CAI) officers are present with the farmers to facilitate the discussions to ensure that farmers can express their concerns and demands, and actively participate in the development of extension advice. They use a cell phone with an audio conferencing function, attached to a portable loudspeaker so that everyone in the group can hear the responses from the advisers. The farmers contribute by speaking close to the cell phone.
The CAIs document the proceedings of each audio meeting for deliberation afterwards, and to make sure that the farmers understood the responses from SYFN and the other participants. Each CAI has a laptop so that they can type out their reports and connect to the internet, when available, and communicate directly with SYFN central office using a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) application, such as Skype.
Trained CAIs also use digital cameras to make short, simple video documentaries portraying the challenges faced by farmers, and any solutions they might have developed. Where possible, the CAIs use local agricultural information and research (AIR) centres with internet access to upload the short films to YouTube, where SYFN staff and other project researchers can view them. In areas where there is no internet, the videos are saved onto CD-ROMs that SYFN officers can collect on their weekly visits.
Previous videos have featured subjects such as weed infestation, pests and diseases affecting crops and animals, model farms that display good cultural practices, post-harvest management challenges and successes. The videos help SYFN and the other project staff to develop specific extension advice to address the various issues, and offer guidance on broader concerns affecting the farmers.
Through the ACE programme, farmers can now access extension information when they need it, in time to tackle problems, increase productivity and improve living standards. These developments, coupled with other SYFN initiatives using ICTs has led to more young people in the target communities adopting farming as a livelihood, and helped them to organise themselves into farmer based organisations.
Specific agricultural business training has led many young farmers to establish a variety of enterprises throughout the value chain, leading to improvements in the system, providing new employment opportunities and reducing migration to the urban areas. ‘Through the use of technology, I can now communicate my challenges in farming and receive prompt advice from agricultural experts,’ said one young farmer, adding, ‘this has indeed attracted me to agriculture ever since I returned from the city.’
The communities where the project was implemented have measurably improved too, as more young people remain and become involved in farming. Agriculture is now seen as a profitable livelihood, worth investing time and resources. Farmers, both young and old, are more aware of how to access and use extension information. They are developing their skills, increasing the pool of capacities in the community and enabling people to find their own solutions to agricultural, and even wider, problems. Food security, for example, has been enhanced as productivity increased for most farmers.
Based on the success of ACE, and other projects using cell phones, specialised software and other ICTs, SYFN is convinced that technology is essential to the delivery of extension services, to make farming a realistic opportunity for young people, and ensure agriculture has a future in rural areas.