Direct data on demand

Mobile apps deliver a broad range of information to Ugandan farmers

Whitney Gantt
Eric Cantor

A network of community knowledge workers (CKWs) in Uganda uses a suite of mobile applications to give farmers a broad range of information. The CKWs can provide farming advice, market data, pest- and disease-control training, plus weather forecasts.

Challenges such as poor infrastructure, high transportation costs and a lack of communication between scientists and farmers mean that the potential of agriculture in many ACP countries is not fully realized. Research organizations that work with rural communities find that they are unable to get the information they produce to farmers, because they do not have an effective, affordable system for communicating with them.

In Uganda, the Grameen Foundation, working with MTN Uganda and other partners and the organization’s local initiative, AppLab, have developed a network of community knowledge workers (CKWs) who work directly with farmers. The CKWs provide that crucial link between agricultural research institutes, organizations serving farmers, private businesses working in the sector, and smallholder farmers.

The project team gave extensive training on agriculture and mobile technology to trusted people already living in the community. They provided each new CKW with a relatively simple Java-enabled mobile phone, fitted with a suite of applications to provide on-demand information on farming practices, market conditions, pest and disease control, weather forecasts, and a range of other issues important to farmers.


In February 2009, Grameen Foundation began a small pilot project in Bushenyi and Mbale districts of Uganda to test the CKW model. The project team recruited and trained 38 CKWs who, as they visited the farmers living in their respective communities, went on to complete over 6000 surveys and have more than 14,000 interactions with smallholder farmers during the nine-month project.

Customize

At the start of their training, the CKWs received a toolkit with the mobile phone, a car battery for phone charging, and training materials on how to use the phone. With access to several different information sources, the CKWs were equipped to answer a broad range of queries from farmers, and they could cross-reference and check their advice to make sure the farmers received the most precise and individually relevant answers.

Farmers routinely sought out CKWs to obtain information to help them treat pests and diseases, get accurate weather forecasts for planting, and details on how to earn more from their crops. Among the services available to the CKWs [see box] was the AppLab Question Box (AQB). When a farmer asks their CKW a question, he or she calls a telephone operator. The AQB operator searches pre-approved websites and a dedicated information database and then calls the CKW back, giving the answer in the language spoken by the farmer. When operators cannot find the answer to an agricultural question, they can contact an expert from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).

Throughout the pilot project, farmers used information from the hotline to address pest problems and nutrient deficiencies, and learn about planting, spacing, starting new enterprises and livestock care. The service proved to be a very useful resource. Farmers gave feedback saying that they had increased revenue and decreased losses, as they used the helpline information to treat livestock and plant diseases before their crops were destroyed or their animals were so sick that they had to be brought to the vet or slaughtered.

Connect

As well as providing information to farmers on request, the CKW project developed and tested a Community Level Crop Disease Surveillance system (CLCDS). The system made use of both mobile phones and GIS (geographic information system) technology to link the local CKW network to scientists to enable them to identify, map, monitor and control banana diseases within farming communities.

Despite the existence of advanced control techniques, a number of diseases have devastated Uganda’s national banana trade and have jeopardized the food security and livelihoods of millions of people in East Africa. The disease surveillance system allowed a two-way exchange of information, where the network of CKWs could communicate directly with researchers and farmers. By sharing information in this way, it was possible for the scientists to get a good overview of the spread of diseases and develop strategies to fight them.

Over the course of two months, 38 CKWs used mobile phones and GPS receivers to collect nearly 3000 surveys documenting the presence of the three banana diseases in the two pilot districts. They gathered information on farm characteristics, knowledge of control methods, and the demand for agricultural information by using mobile survey tools that had been previously installed on their phones. They could allocate the GPS coordinates to each completed survey questionnaire and add photos of the specific disease symptoms they found on the plants. The CKWs then saved the information on their phones and sent it over the mobile network (using GPRS) to the central database.

Once CKWs submitted their survey results, scientists could access and view the data directly from the web and download the results for analysis. The surveys provided substantial data showing the spatial distribution of banana disease incidence in the communities. The team of scientists viewed thousands of digital photos of disease symptoms which CKWs submitted with their surveys.

Developers of the CLCDS phone application designed it so that the survey itself became a diagnostic tool. Based on the farmers’ responses, a ‘pop-up window opened on the phone’s browser that showed information on disease identification, including photographs illustrating disease symptoms (this was achieved by launching a hyperlink to internal text and image files). These files, stored internally on the CKWs mobile phones, contained the specific control measures necessary to prevent the spread of the diagnosed banana disease.

With access to such specific information, the CKWs trained all of the survey respondents in scientific methods for banana disease detection, preventative measures and control procedures. The first and most crucial step to controlling any disease is its correct and rapid identification. Only after a farmer has recognized the symptoms and identified the disease can they adopt the appropriate control methods.

Providing detailed disease control information was, therefore, a critical component of the CLCDS. The training took place mainly through on-farm demonstrations and the distribution and explanation of farmer reference guides targeting banana disease and pest management. CKWs physically demonstrated how to properly sterilize tools, prepare clean planting materials, and differentiate between various banana disease symptoms and potential causes.

By the end of the two-month pilot period, CKWs had trained over 3000 farmers in the appropriate methods for banana disease identification, preventative measures and control procedures. But CLCDS also showed how a mobile survey system could enhance scientists’ ability to monitor disease outbreaks as they happened, and to then deliver information to farmers in remote areas through the CKWs, particularly to areas where extension officers and agricultural researchers do not regularly visit.

Having up-to-date information that included details of the exact locations of a disease, agricultural experts could develop a plan of preventative measures and allow the rapid dispersal of information that would decrease the spread of the disease. The GIS data could then help the scientists to pinpoint sites to collect plant samples of new or suspicious disease reports for subsequent diagnosis in the laboratory.

Target

An evaluation at the end of the pilot project revealed that the farmers and the CKWs valued the on-demand aspect of the mobile services. One CKW from Mbale pointed out that even though farmers can get weather information from the radio, those reports only come at a certain time and could be easily missed. The phone, however, is ‘a direct pipeline to information’, which can be accessed at any time.

Similarly, the farmers appreciated the breadth of market data, which covered prices from several markets across the country. Previously, local radio announcements were limited to nearby markets and depended on other farmers providing the information. This was often seen as unreliable by the famers, as they questioned the motives and reliability of the sources.

The project team also learned that CKWs used the mobile services to compare answers, give more complete information, or provide information covering multiple steps in the agricultural cycle. They could, for example, get post-harvest handling tips for coffee as well as check coffee prices in different markets. After advising clients on disease control methods during a survey, CKWs could use the mobile information services to give farmers information on how to establish new crops to supplement their income while they waited for their plantations to recover.

The team evaluating the project also polled farmers to compare the information provided by CKWs with that of existing agricultural extension services. Farmers unanimously answered that the CKW method was far superior, with many farmers saying that their local agricultural extension officer had never personally visited their farm to collect information or give advice.

Furthermore, most farmers interviewed did not know how to contact their local agricultural extension officer. This finding highlights the importance of the CKW outreach method, in which extension is carried out through trusted community members that villagers can find to ask advice in the local market, village or at a social function.

Translation

The CKW also acts as an interpreter for those farmers who do not speak English, who have lower literacy levels, who do not own phones, and who are less familiar with how to use services on their phones. And the CKWs are able to travel to farmers who, because of a lack of mobility due to age, disability, or lack of resources, are isolated in their villages and generally have little access to information.

The short length of the pilot meant that it was not possible to measure the impact on crop productivity or famers’ incomes. But it was clear from the project evaluation that there is great potential for the initiative to serve female farmers in particular. Fewer female farmers have their own phones but do the bulk of work in the fields. Also, women in middle-class farming households are often left to manage farms when the men migrate to the cities to find jobs.

Based on the promising results from the pilot project, Grameen Foundation will expand the Community Knowledge Worker Initiative across Uganda. The organization aims to build a CKW network capable of serving more than 200,000 smallholder farmers while developing a replicable model that can be used in other regions. Any expansion will, however, be integrated with the existing extension system so that CKWs strengthen the national agricultural extension framework. But Grameen Foundation has already begun working with partners to recruit, train and support a new group of CKWs, who will begin offering services in early 2010.

Community Knowledge Workers phone applications
The CKWs could access seven different information services from their mobile phones:
Google SMS Farmer’s Friend A database of locally relevant, organic tips and advice, plus a three day and seasonal weather forecast. The CKW can search the database through codes sent via SMS. Developed in partnership with MTN Uganda, Google and local NGO BROSDI, (see the feature on BROSDI in ICT Update issue 38 http://ictupdate.cta.int/en/Feature-Articles/) ( http://ictupdate.cta.int/fr/Feature-Articles/)

Google SMS Trader A user-generated trading bulletin that provides farmers with the contact details of traders and vice versa through SMS posting and notifications. Developed in partnership with MTN Uganda and Google.

AppLab Question Box CKWs can phone this service to speak to an operator with access to an internet database and expert agricultural advice from nation’s leading research institute. Developed in partnership with US-based NGO Open Mind and Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation.

CKW Search A series of forms, presented in Java, guides the user through a menu to search for agronomic techniques for banana and coffee production. Content provided by Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation, Uganda Coffee Development Authority, and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Input Supplier Directory An SMS-based keyword search service that gives the location and contact details of shops offering specific agricultural inputs, such as seeds, pesticides and fertilizer. Content provided by Uganda National Input Dealer Association.

Banana Disease Control Tips Pre-loaded HTML pages show control measures for specific banana diseases. Content provided by IITA.

Market Prices An SMS-based keyword search service that gives retail and wholesale prices for 46 commodities in 20 markets. Information provided by FIT Uganda, a local market price provider.

For more details see the TechTip 'Crop management advice'

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Whitney Gantt is ICT Innovation technical programme officer with the Grameen Foundation ( www.grameenfoundation.org).
Eric Cantor is the director of AppLab Uganda ( www.applabs.org)

23 February 2010

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)