Sauti ya wakulima: using mobile phones to make the voices of rural farmers in Tanzania heard
Authors: Eugenio Tisselli, Juanita Schlaepfer-Miller, Angelika Hilbeck.
E-agriculture defines an emerging field in which information and communication technologies (ICT) are applied to the improvement of agriculture and rural livelihoods. The term was introduced as one of the key areas of application of ICTs in the Plan of Action of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), celebrated in Geneva 2003. In that document, the aims of e-agriculture were to apply ICTs to the dynamic dissemination of accessible, up-to-date information on agriculture, particularly in rural areas, and to use these technologies as instruments to increase food production, both in quantity and quality (WSIS, 2003).
Mobile communication technologies are presently the main focus of e-agriculture. In Africa, where most of the development projects for agriculture are concentrated, internet usage is still low, reaching about 13,5% of the population; yet it has grown 2’357% over the last ten years, almost five times more than the rest of the world (Internet World Stats, 2011). However, more than a third part of the population in Africa are mobile phone owners, and this rate is growing fast (International Telecommunications Union, 2010). According to their farmer-centered research, Furuholt and Matotay (Furuholt, Matotay, 2011) identify five key areas in which mobile technologies become useful: 1. Accessing timely information, 2. Making markets more efficient and transparent, 3. Providing advance warning of weather and other risks, 4. Accessing complementary services, such as mobile banking, and 5. Aiding in general communication and coordination.
In our research, we aim to reveal and provide an alternative to the underlying values of most e-agriculture projects in Africa, which tend to regard farmers as mere clients of expert-generated information. We have argued that the unidirectional communication designed into these projects may effectively devalue the traditional knowledge held by farmers, in favor of purely techno-scientific solutions1. Moreover, our research recognizes the calls made by a number of scientists, who have recognized the necessity of integrating traditional knowledge into the design of local strategies for development and adaptation to complex challenges such as climate change (Jones et al., 2005).
Description of the project.
Sauti ya wakulima2, “The voice of the farmers” in Swahili, is an e-agriculture project which directly addresses the socio-agricultural context of rural communities in Tanzania. The project was started in January 2011, when we traveled to Tanzania to conduct a series of interviews with farmers living near the town of Bagamoyo, with the purpose of engaging them in the creation of an online, collaborative knowledge base about the effects of climate change, using smartphones as tools for observation and a web page to gather the recorded images and sounds. Accompanied by Dr. Flora Ismail from the Botany department of the University of Dar es Salaam, and Mr. Hamza S. Suleyman, the local extension officer, we held a meeting with a group of farmers that regularly gather at the Chambezi agricultural field station in the Bagamoyo District. At this meeting, the project and its goals were explained to the farmers. Despite the fact that none of them had accessed the internet before, they had all heard of it largely through the younger members of their communities. They quickly understood that the images and sounds uploaded from the smartphones would not only be visible to them, but to anyone who visited the project’s web page. After deliberating, the farmers voted unanimously in favor of taking part.
We established the project’s dynamics together with the farmers, and carried out the first training session on how to use the smartphone and the project’s web page. A group of five men and five women chosen by the community would take turns to share the two available smartphones, by exchanging them on a weekly basis. Whenever a farmer’s turn to use the phone arrived, he or she would have the task of using it to contribute content to the knowledge base. These contents consist of units, which we call messages, comprised of a picture, a voice recording and an optional keyword. A special application running on the smartphones makes it easy to capture the multimedia elements. It also integrates geographical information into the message (if available), allows the addition of one or more keywords and sends all the elements to a web server, bundled together as an email message. By using pictures and voice recordings, farmers can portray a wide variety of objects, situations and persons, and complement visual evidence with their own spoken narrations.
Farmers not only got together to exchange the phones but also to see and discuss the pictures and voice recordings that the group had uploaded during the week. There, they accessed the project’s web page using a laptop computer with a mobile broadband connection. As of this writing, the farmers in Chambezi were continuing to use the smartphones to publish content. After 21 months, Sauti ya wakulima now runs in a semi-autonomous fashion, and is partially supported by the local government in Bagamoyo.
In our analysis of the contents published by the farmers, we confirmed that the farmers used the smartphones mostly to interview other people. In these interviews, fragments of knowledge and even manifestations of creativity (such as the invention of a shelling machine or experimentation with intercropping) were revealed. The phones were also used to provide visual evidence of problems such as pests, plant diseases or the scarcity of water, and to advertise products or services. The diversity of topics addressed by the farmers reveals the extent to which the farmers appropriated both the communications tools and the originally proposed goals of the research. Appropriation can be considered as indicator for usefulness and meeting the needs of the targeted community as it can deeply affect the politics of their daily lives. In a context where communication technologies play an active role in development, it can be seen as a starting point for community empowerment (Bar, Pisani and Weber, 2007).
The farmers found that documenting their practices and problems through interviews could lead to the creation of a shared, audiovisual knowledge base, which they could use for various purposes including learning, consulting of farming practices, promotion of farming inputs and even extending their social networks. Farmers also saw the project’s potential for reporting problems, such as pests or construction of wells, to the extension officers and/or government officials in order to get timely assistance. The Agricultural Office in Bagamoyo found this application to be particularly relevant. According to an official report, one of the greatest weaknesses in the local agricultural infrastructure is the lack of sufficient extension officers. Currently, there is a ratio of 1 extension officer per 1,145 farmers, almost half of the ideal ratio, established by the office at 1:600 (Bagamoyo District Council, 2011). In response to this expressed interest, the local government in Bagamoyo has agreed to financially support the project, by providing funds to cover the expenses generated by the usage of smartphones. Additionally, the local government has provided a number of grants to the farmers who participate in Sauti ya wakulima, encouraging them to document farmers’ shows and agricultural fairs in Bagamoyo and other villages.
Suggested actions and lessons learned.
These actions are aimed at planners, designers, researchers and on-the-ground personnel involved in the development of e-agriculture projects.
1. Consider farmers as generators of knowledge. The design of most e-agriculture projects currently being developed does not encourage the integration of local farmer-held knowledge into a larger body of agricultural knowledge. This may affect farmers in a negative way by eroding their own systems of knowledge and traditional social structures. Agriculture is a complex field that requires much more than technical expertise. Thus, e-agriculture initiatives can be made more effective by embracing holistic values that also include social elements and traditional knowledge.
2. Fully exploit the interactive capacity of mobile media. Most e-agriculture initiatives do not contemplate a multi-directional model of communication, in which every node of the network can be both a consumer and producer of information. Generally, expert information is made accessible to farmers who, only in some cases, are allowed to get replies for specific questions. However, mobile networked communications media have the potential to break this hierarchical mode of transmission, and engage all involved parties in more equal terms.
3. Deploy highly experimental and innovative e-agriculture projects as small-scale initiatives. One of the key concerns in e-agriculture is the usage of so-called “realistic” technologies, meaning that high-end platforms such as smartphones or data networks should be avoided, because they are not available to the majority of farmers. Despite the fact that robust and reliable digital networks are still largely missing in Tanzania and other countries, and that the cost of devices and data connections can be prohibitive for most farmers, projects such as Sauti ya wakulima aim to explore new possibilities through the innovative and experimental usage of these relatively sophisticated tools. In contrast with other e-agriculture projects, which seek to impact large numbers of people, Sauti ya wakulima has engaged a small group of very focused farmers willing to test new communications technologies.
4. Encourage the appropriation of media tools and scientific research goals. As we have argued, the appropriation of communications media by a community can lead to its empowerment. Therefore, farmers should be encouraged to not only become users of mobile networks, but also to reshape their usage to best suit their needs. This effort requires adequate training and the design of platforms which embrace open-source values. As a parallel action, we suggest that research projects be designed in ways which allow farmers to lead their goals and share their outcomes together with scientists.
5. Technical difficulties.
We encountered a number of technical problems. On two different occasions, we had to replace a phone which had stopped working because of extreme weather and environmental conditions. The phone cameras do not focus on macro level and so details of insects and fungus were lost. However, the most important limitations of Sauti ya wakulima are achieving a stable financial sustainability and devising a scheme to scale up the project in order to involve other groups of farmers.
Bagamoyo District Council, 2011. Agricultural Sector Development Programme and District Agricultural Development Plans for 2011/2012, Bagamoyo District Council, Bagamoyo.
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