The figures are alarming: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050. This statistic means that by then farmers will have to increase food production by at least 70%, if not more.
Meeting this demand and simultaneously preserving natural resources and preventing environmental degradation is going to be a massive challenge. If the agricultural sector is to feed this growing global population and provide the basis for economic growth and poverty reduction, then it must undergo radical change.
Climate change is likely to make this task more difficult, however. Family farmers, who produce more than 70% of agricultural products in sub-Saharan Africa, are particularly vulnerable to climate change as they rely on rain-fed agriculture and have poor access to information, inputs and markets. Farm Radio Trust in Malawi is assisting farmers to adapt to climate change through an innovative ICT-enhanced participatory radio campaign.
Working with the family farmers and local extension workers in the Nkhotakota district, Farm Radio Trust conducted a rural rapid appraisal in order to uncover the agricultural goals and challenges of smallholder farmers within the communities and then identify climate-smart innovations that respond to these needs and priorities. The aim of the appraisal was to engage family farmers in a process of articulating climate-smart agricultural practices that they would like to learn about through radio.
Another appraisal sought to assess community members’ knowledge of compost manure and how they were using it. Following this, a workshop was held to train the radio station staff to design and produce programmes on climate-smart agriculture and compost manure. The workshop brought together Nkhotakota Community Radio staff, family farmers, extension workers, local NGOs and others. They designed a four-month-long radio series on compost manure.
The radio messages started by helping the farmers understand a series of issues, such as the meaning of climate change and its effects, the importance of compost manure in building resilience to climate change, the process of making manure using locally available resources, gender mainstreaming in the process of making compost manure, and how to actually apply compost manure efficiently in the fields. These radio messages were developed in the local language so the target audience could understand them easily.
Radio listener clubs
A mobile-based feedback system was installed to complement and enhance the radio broadcasts. The idea was to develop a system that was user friendly, easy to manage, web-based, self-analytical and accessible to all users in real time. This system enabled the broadcasters to engage their audience through SMS and flash calls. The broadcasters were also able to provide advisory information services on climate-smart agriculture and remind the audience of the topics and broadcast times through SMS.
In order to increase listenership and learning among family farmers, the radio station mobilised 20 radio listening groups and supplied them with wind-up radios. These wind-up radios had mp3 recorders and 4GB memory cards that enabled members to record radio programmes so that they could listen at a later time.
When the feedback system was installed, only about 40% of the population had mobile phones. However, the research team discovered that thanks to the radio listening clubs, the presence of just a single mobile phone in the community made a huge difference. The radio listening clubs were given a training session that showed members how to use the radio sets and which explained the importance of participation and feedback in development communication. They were also taught how to record their views and discussions after they listen to the programme so that they too could be aired on subsequent radio programmes. And finally members were shown how to check their SMS inboxes, enter text and send SMS messages.
By the end of the radio series, 789 contacts were recorded in the system database – an impressive number if you consider that mobile phone ownership in the area is considerably low. These contacts consisted of farmers in listener clubs and other farmers who listened to the radio broadcasts on their own. Extension workers were also included in the database so they could receive SMS reminders to help them keep track of the radio programme and provide support by visiting the clubs and mounting method demonstrations on compost manure making.
Each farmer contact received bi-weekly SMS alerts: a broadcast reminder and an AgTip on compost manure. Other farmer listeners were added to the database when they beeped, sent an SMS or made calls to the mobile numbers in the system. To keep listeners in the loop, debates, opinion polls and quiz questions were included in the programme. Broadcasters made sure that they announced the mobile numbers during each episode.
The campaign’s impact
Various studies in Malawi have shown that compost manure is made and used under the supervision of extension programmes of sustainable land management initiatives. And yet the rate of adoption by family farmers has remained low. This low adoption is mainly because farmers are not fully aware of the benefits of compost manure yet, and often lack the resources to use it anyway.
The compost manure radio campaign that was implemented in the Nkhotakota district, however, managed to register remarkable success in a short time due to its participatory approach. By the end of the campaign, about 1,000 farmers were able to make approximately 3,200 heaps ready for application.
Feedback steadily increased throughout the participatory radio campaign. Participation increased after each episode, and there was a weekly increase in the number of SMS exchanges after each episode. The statistics (see ‘feedback’ box) show that the participatory radio campaign helped farmers to learn about climate change and compost manure in an effective and efficient manner. At the beginning of the radio programme, broadcasters encouraged farmers to beep the mobile number as a sign that the programme is on air and that people are listening.
In the course of the campaign, other previously established farmer clubs asked for assistance in making compost manure. Family farmers also made calls to the radio station to ask if an extension worker could visit and teach them how to make compost manure. The radio station personnel would then make the necessary arrangements with the agricultural extension officers to visit the area to support the farmers. One particular farmer group that was not part of the 20 radio listening clubs registered for the project. They actually organised themselves into a group and made almost 20 heaps of compost manure with technical support from the extension workers.
Another case of particular interest was a request from a community for the radio station personnel to link them up with extension workers who – by means of text messages – could teach them how to make compost manure. The radio station personnel managed to follow up with this group and link them to the extension worker responsible for that area. This led to the birth of the 21st registered listener club under the umbrella of the ‘Compost Manure Making Participatory Radio Campaign’.
A number of important lessons were learned while carrying out this project. Indeed, they stand to offer anyone involved in agricultural development initiatives key advice in the use of ICTs.
- The reality and centrality of family farming: Compost manure is an endeavour that the whole family takes part in. While women and children normally take on the role of gathering crop residues, drawing water and animal dung, the men are normally responsible for constructing the heaps and pits for the compost. Carrying compost manure is normally done by anyone in the family, especially women and children. Therefore, it is extremely important that agricultural extension targets families.
- Demand-driven extension: The content of extension services must anticipate the needs of smallholder farmers. Letting farmers’ needs drive the objectives of development initiatives increases their ownership and makes them more receptive to these kinds of projects.
- The power of ICTs: ICTs are powerful tools in agricultural extension. Radio and mobile phones were the only platform that encouraged interaction between farmers and climate-change experts. Even if there was only a single mobile phone available in the community, it made a tremendous difference because it could record and replay radio programmes.
- Understanding the farmers, their context and their needs: Far too often, the cart is put before the horse when it comes to finding solutions for family farming. ICTs and other extension methods are selected without first doing the crucial work of identifying existing challenges, information needs and viable channels of communication. A comprehensive analysis of needs and context should therefore take place before farmers are provided with solutions.
- Joint problem solving and decision making: Too often, development practitioners fall into the trap of ‘rural tourism’, where they collect baseline data for a project and synthesise it separately from the project beneficiaries. The use of participatory methods that involve farmers from A to Z have been found to generate the most effective results.
- Partnership and collaboration: In line with new development in agricultural extension, an innovation systems perspective is critical to agricultural development. Farm Radio Trust experienced remarkable results in this project by involving all stakeholders in the learning process.
- Innovating the traditional extension systems: One major lesson learned during the project was that ICTs cannot replace radio – nor can radio replace the extension worker. They can complement each other in a systematic way, however. ICTs present family farmers with an opportunity to reach a wide audience, but that will only happen if ICTs are innovatively combined with traditional extension models as was done in this project. It has to be understood that using ICTs in agriculture is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
- Gender mainstreaming: The position of women was analysed throughout the participatory radio campaign process. This helped to package the radio series in formats and styles attractive to women. The times at which the radio programmes were aired also took women’s household schedules into account. As the radio messages were developed, gender-focused episodes were also included. Ensuring higher percentages of women in the radio listening clubs also helped to increase women’s access to mobile phones, which is relatively lower as compared to men.
The ICT-enhanced participatory radio campaign showed that ICTs can be easily integrated into the lives of smallholder family farmers. Indeed, it is putting to rest the myth that mobile technology is the exclusive domain of elite classes or people living in urban areas. Farm Radio Trust has managed to help break through the digital divide that prevents technology and knowledge to be transferred to rural communities through mobile phones and other ICTs.