David Walker shows how digital video productions allow extension workers to reach larger numbers of farmers, at a time when extension services are being greatly reduced.
Stephen Duggins and his fellow extension officers have become local celebrities in rural St. Kitts. Armed with a digital video camera, Stephen travels through the island and produces instructional videos for farmers. He visits local crop farmers to record their concerns and to provide them with feedback about how they can improve crop yields and maximize profits. Back at his rural extension unit office, Stephen plugs the camera into a television set and edits his footage, so that it can be transferred to videotape and converted to any format. His broadcast-quality recordings will make the rounds with other local extension officers, and will be distributed to other farming regions.
Stephen is not alone – rural extension officers in Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica have also been taught how to use a camera and audio/video production skills to demonstrate new farming techniques and address local issues. Their new skills are the result of the Commonwealth of Learning Media Empowerment (COLME) programme, which was launched in 1999 to address issues in agriculture, forestry, the environment, health and education around the world. The initiative, supported by the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), is an example of COLME’s Open and Distance Learning (ODL) model, which aims to promote the exchange of training and other information among farmers, extension officers and scientists.
The COLME programme activities in the Caribbean focus on fostering agribusiness opportunities and environmental sustainability. The aim is to assist governments in their efforts to move away from their traditional dependency on a single crop – such as bananas in Dominica or sugar in St Kitts and Nevis – and to support small farmers who have been sidelined by imports of mass-produced food products from developed countries.
Video: the most reliable medium
After studying the possibilities for the best Caribbean ODL model, COLME project members, together with local extension staff and farm groups, decided to opt for video, for a number of reasons. On many islands the hilly terrain tends to block radio signals, so that video is by far the most reliable medium. Moreover, visual information tends to be of greater value to farmers, since many of them already have television sets and video players. Most important, video allows extension workers to reach larger numbers of farmers, at a time when extension services are being greatly reduced. In Jamaica, for example, there was one extension officer per 500 farmers in 1990. Since then the number of extension officers has been reduced by more than 50%, while the number of farmers has increased. Yet, in order for extension officers to be able to reach farmers effectively, they need to be directly involved with gathering local content.
Simple video production goes a long way to meeting this requirement. Many extension officers, once they are familiar with the new user-friendly digital production equipment, enjoy the challenge and feel it is an important set of skills that supports their mandate of reaching farmers. The farmers in turn can directly relate to information that is relevant to their own region, valley, field and colleagues.
The COLME programme is going strong. In St Kitts, for example, the extension service has produced a video-based magazine for television, in which farmers are encouraged to adopt new techniques and to diversify production. In Jamaica, video-based extension information has been used at farmers’ group meetings such as agricultural field days sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture. In Tobago, video productions on the environment and forestry have been shown in local schools to make young people more aware of the importance of preserving wetlands.
It should be noted, however, that this initiative will only be sustainable if the region’s agriculture ministries allow the role of the rural extension officer to change. Under the current system, trained field extension officers who are promoted are often transferred from their area of expertise and given administrative duties, creating a serious knowledge gap at field level. More initiatives such as the COLME programme are urgently needed to assist governments in finding new, effective strategies that enable greater numbers of farmers to receive relevant information.