New technology is becoming more accessible to rural communities in the Cajamarca region of Peru in this podcasting experiment. Farmers can now get relevant information on the specific crops they grow in a language they understand.
Pastoral farmers have lived in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru for more than 3,000 years. Traditional crops of potatoes, beans and cereals are still extensively grown, while the equatorial climate in this part of the Andean mountain range provides a good environment for cultivating vines. Cattle also graze the steep mountain slopes, supplying milk to make the cheese and other dairy products for which Cajamarca is famous.
Radio has been used to reach the farmers here but broadcasting projects can be expensive to set up and there are often regulatory problems to be overcome. Radio remains popular, however, among the rural communities, indicating that people preferred to listen to important information rather than read it in leaflets or other written material. But a lower cost solution was needed, especially as the state no longer provided local agricultural extension services. After a two-year research project conducted by Practical Action (formerly known as the Intermediate Technology Development Group, ITDG) and Cranfield University, it was decided that podcasting could provide such a solution.
Targeted messages, in simple, easy-to-understand language, are produced and made available on the Internet. Users subscribe for free to the service and automatically receive regular updates. To make each podcast more accessible to the wider farming community, local information centres with Internet connections make audio CDs or copy the files onto digital audio players which can then be listened to by farmers at a time convenient to themselves. They are also able to rewind and replay the parts of the information they might at first not understand. The podcasts are also broadcast on radio, offering the opportunity for people with traditional receivers to hear the same information. In fact, it was this mix of old and new technology that contributed largely to the success of this project.
Many ICT projects face the challenge of sharing information with people who have little experience of the technology. Low levels of literacy, little time or money, limited specialized knowledge or the necessary language requirements to use the technology all contribute to making ICT projects seem complicated and difficult to use. The ITDG-Cranfield University project called this the “challenge of connecting the first mile”. The researchers wanted to find a low cost solution to this problem and build a bridge between the seemingly complicated ICT and the people who are supposed to use them.
The local economy in rural Cajamarca depends primarily on agricultural and dairy production. Since the extension services were disbanded the information needs of smallholder farmers and local producers have been covered by the Rural-Urban Information System (SIRU). The SIRU project uses eight local information centres to link rural communities to information providers such as government bodies and NGOs working in the region.
As these centres developed, it was noticed that there were often queues of people waiting to use the telephone but nobody was using the computer based Internet services. People in the market would be listening to radio. It was obvious then that voice was the most important communications medium – it overcame any issues of literacy or language or fear of the computer. Voice had long been the method of sharing knowledge through story telling in the evenings. Information was spread simply by talking, but one person’s voice can only reach a limited number of people.
To try to reach a larger audience, podcasts (audio files) were incorporated into the SIRU information system that had already been operating for over three years. Their website was used as a location for listing all the available podcasts which were downloaded at the information centres. Three target audiences were selected according to the crops produced in each area: taya producers in San Marcos, vine growers in Chilete, who received information on grape growing, and dairy producers in Chanta Alta who were given practical information on cattle raising and milk production. However, because local farmers and others for whom the information might be relevant did not have access to mobile mp3 players, CDs and audio tapes were produced and broadcast on the radio. The project used a mix of old and new technologies according to the needs of the end users.
Links to local radio stations were also established, where possible, so that the podcasts could be broadcast on the air. But people would visit the administrator at the Chilete information centre, Elita Plascencia, and ask about programmes their neighbours had listened to and whether they were going to be aired again. She concluded that the demand for this information had not been completely satisfied by the radio programmes. She then suggested recording the shorter programmes onto audio tapes, but she also thought of using music between programmes. In doing this, she contributed to creating an audio programme that does not lose value over time and is less transient than the version produced by the local radio station. The information was therefore available to farmers at their request.
Podcasting not only reduced the cost and made the production process easier it also helped to increase information dissemination and the focus on the target audience. Radio on its own is a powerful dissemination medium as it covers large areas and listeners become involved and even emotionally attached to specific programmes but it was this combination of old and new technologies that was key to the success of the SIRU podcast project. The use of mixed media in this project was a direct result of listening to the needs of the users.
The main target audience in Peru was perceived to be poor people in remote rural areas whose lives could be changed with specific, targeted information. One problem with this approach was that it needed the demand to be stimulated and there needed to be ways of keeping the information up-to-date and relevant. The project team recognizes that in the future they could begin by concentrating more on those who already produce information and teach them how to create audio material. That might overcome the problem of keeping the information up-to-date. This case shows that there needs to be an approach which listens to the needs of potential users and balances this with a sensitive and appropriate (old and new) technology adoption strategy.
The project in Cajamarca was set up to test the technology in terms of finding out the benefits to local people and the value it could add to their livelihoods. Future plans from Practical Action include adding audio information to their “Janathakshan” portal in Sri Lanka, and providing audio information to rural communities in Zimbabwe. These will be recorded in a variety of local languages, for example Tamil and Sinhala, to make them more accessible to the target audiences and therefore help to connect that important “first mile”.
Practical Action has published a report from their research, called “Connecting the First Mile”. It outlines the challenges involved in sharing information with people who have little experience of ICTs, low levels of literacy, little time or money, and very specific knowledge and language requirements. It offers a detailed case study from the ICT project in Peru and provides a best practice framework for practitioners.
Janathakshan Rebuilding Information, is Practical Action’s project site for South East Asia and is based in Sri Lanka. They work with communities on a wide variety of issues including renewable energy, agriculture, community governance and local disaster management.
BBC reported on the Cajamarca project and produced its own podcast. The web report is still available entitled Podcasts reach Peruvian villages.
The Rural Urban Information System (SIRU) in Peru works to create an exchange of information and increase the capacity of decision makers and farmers. (Website in Spanish)