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Apr

ICT for Agriculture: What does the farmer want?

Posteado por Stijn van der Krogt - 0 Coments

Despite participatory design of programs, we still make the wrong assumptions about what farmers want. Even after supporting over 50 projects and programs related to ICT and agriculture, I have to be careful not to take a short cut and assume. In this blog I will share some of my experiences with starting projects in agriculture. A simple advice: whenever starting a new project. DO NOT ASSUME. Go, see, sit, listen and talk. Take your time. Four stories from the field where I got it wrong initially.

“What’s your problem, man?”

Mandeville, Jamaica. From Kingston to Mandeville and on to a farmer community near the South coast. There IICD, where I worked at that time, started an agriculture information center project. The project was set up with Anthony Frekkelton, charismatic community leader and founder of the Mandeville Weekly. We focused on providing price information through his newspaper and a network of community information centers.

Anthony had been able to gather over 150 farmers. All waiting for the opening of the information center: consisting of a room, computer and satellite Internet connection. After an introduction by Anthony, I started with my typical participatory approach. I asked the group of farmer: “What information do you need as a farmer”. An ackward silence for more than 5 minutes. To get out of this situation I had to do something. Then it occurred to me to, and with the little Patua accent I could manage, I asked: “What’s your problem, man?” Saved by the bell. A rush of questions and opinions ofthe farmers followed. One of the farmers asked about a great fertilizer that he used to buy at the market, but now not available anymore. I took a risk and told them: "I will go to the computer and will find the fertilizer for you in less than 3 minutes.” With the Internet functioning, I was able to find it in one minute.... Finally, the farmers convinced of the value of the centre and the project could really kick off.

“Use your mobile phone please!”

One hour north of Kampala, Uganda. Finally visiting one of the information centers set up through a project supported by several Dutch and Ugandan organizations. The centers provide farmers with price information and serve to channel the demand for products. First obstacle is found in the limited capacity of center operators to keep the Internet working. No advanced stuff here, just not able to keep the service up after one month of not paying for the service or not calling the provider, combined with lack of interest from the side of the Internet providers to give any type of technical back up.

Talking to a group of farmers under the tree outside the center, I asked if the project was serving their needs. "If the Internet works, we are are happy with the information we get. We are now better informed about the price on the markets in town, and we can easier offer our products." "The only problem is that the centers are still far away. We can visit the centre only once per week at market day." Therefore they propose to set up additional centres in the area.

Being innovative -I thought- I took out my mobile phone and put it on the floor. “Look, this can be your information center, right in your pocket, right? We send you the prices via a SMS, and you send a SMS back with the products you offer”. No reaction. I wondered, maybe I am not explaining well, as before in Jamaica. But the farmers explain me clearly: “For us, an SMS will not do, the information center is not just to send and receive information. It is where we meet and talk, exchange ideas and take decisions together. Therefore we need to think how to set up more centers. We will find the space and run the centers, can you collaborate with initial investment and training?I guess they are very right..

Ask her too!

Back in the beautiful valley of Vallegrande, Bolivia, I visited a farmers to see if the daily radio program on farm prices actually had an impact on farmers living in remote villages. The radio program is currently the second-best program listened to by 500,000 farmers in Bolivia. As an alternative, the same information now also 700 farmers subscribed to the SMS-based price service, primarily used larger farmers and traders. 

One of the farmers visited is Juan, living really remote on a small farm: “Senor, do you listen to the radio? Do you listen to the program on market prices in the morning?”. No, sorry, he does not listen to the program. Well, so far for our great program.

Having driven so far, any other person to ask? The farmer’s wife is standing on the doorway, listening to our conversation. Why not ask her too? You do get the point. “I listen every day, that is why I told my husband to plant lettuce this year. The price was 10 pesos last year, now it is 25. So we changed from unions to lettuce.” And “I also listen to the program that tells how to use medicinal herbs, these grow a lot over here. I use it often to cure my children and prepare for other families here too. Actually, that was why I knew about the price information too”.

Wow, macho country seemed suddenly a lot less macho. Asking afterwards, I found out that the division of roles and decision-making among men and women can vary according to cultural tribe, region and even age. I also learned that it is important to ask and search for types of information particularly relevant to women. Women are often very interested to learn things and to actually apply it to their daily practice, especially issues related to improve the live of their children.

Biological, Ecological, Fair Trade, who cares?

Piora, Northern Peru. From working with large producer groups of ecological products in several countries, many producers explained that the higher price is the main driver for producing certified products. Sustainability comes as a secondary motivation. You ask, we provide whatever logo is put on the product, and earn a bit more.

Surprise during a field visit to farmers experimenting with home made organic fertilizers and more sustainable production methods. Why?: “Using sustainable methods we increased productivity so much that we can make a living of the poor land we own, and because we want our children to eat healthy things”. It sounded like our typical NGO talk. But their explanation was really sincere. Back in one of the several great restaurants I was told that this fits into the countries’ promotion of fancy Peruvian cuisine in urban areas, 100% based on local biological products. So if you want to support development in Peru, you can now travel to rural areas and consciously combine it with the indulging in fancy restaurants in Lima!

I think you get the point. Just in case you want to read further, some lessons:

-When analyzing priorities in types of information, I found that price information is in many cases a priority for farmers to enable a better negotiation position with intermediaries. But each local context is different and changes priorities. In the case of Jamaica, production quality is much more important to compete with imported American products than prices. This implies that in each case you need to analyze needs together with your counterparts.

-The choice for a particular technology, say radio, mobiles, information centers or simple hand-written billboards on the market place depends not only on the capacity to pay, level of knowledge and capacity of farmers but also on their socio-cultural context. Because these factors are not always easy to understand it is better to jointly implement different technologies and have the counterparts to gain experiences with each to find out what works best. Hitherto I found that integrated use of radio, mobile and small information centers increases the chances that information is effectively used by different groups of farmers. In some cases, farmers may prefer the good old billboards as it provides information publicly shared.

-Gender aspects are increasingly taken on board in designing ICT projects. But it remains difficult to generalize needs and interests of both male and female farmers due to very specific local economic and cultural settings. This calls for direct involvement in design and implementation of any ICT project.Finally, it is important that you do not bring concepts but practical solutions to daily problems. This implies taking risks by showing real live examples of what ICT can do. Hopefully your technology does not fail you right there. Who has not been struggling with getting the presentation lighting up on the screen, a bug in the first version of a database or a mobile phone that just run out of its battery just that particular day you are discussing possible solutions?

Finally, just never underestimate farmers. That is the good thing of farmers, they know exactly what the need and you have only once chance to get them interested. No time for too much techie talk, we need to work!






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