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Improving organic farming practices in Africa with SMS, IVR, app-based training
Unfortunately, many smallholders across the world do not have access to knowledge, and traditional training approaches are limited in their scope and unlikely to reach the majority of the more than 500 million small family farms in the world.
This is why, in 2020, FiBL and partners started the digital training materials pilot project, funded by the Leopold Bachmann Foundation. Together with Biovision Africa Trust (BvAT) and the Rwanda Organic Agriculture Movement (ROAM), SMS-based and app-based farmer trainings were developed and tested. The training content was generated in a participatory process with the Kenyan technology partners Yielder for app-based training and Arifu for SMS-based training. The content consisted of one introductory course on organic agriculture and three value-chain-specified training modules on indigenous poultry, dairy goats and indigenous vegetables. In order to reach out to as many interested farmers as possible, the trainings were promoted via several channels, such as tv, Social Media, the radio, flyers, etc. Further tests of SMS- and app-based training were carried out as part of the project “Knowledge Centre for Organic Agriculture in Africa” (KCOA) in East and West Africa.
Smallholder Stephen learning new practices through SMS
More than 4,000 farmers engaged actively with the SMS training, and meaningful results about the development, dissemination, use and effectiveness of SMS training were collected. Stephen, a farmer in Kiambu county in Kenya, is one of them, and he explains how the SMS training has changed his farming practices: “In one of the SMS modules, I learned about Zai pits (a seeding technique) of vegetable beds and reflected if this might be an option to optimise my currently sunken beds. With Elsa, our farmer trainer, who informed us about the SMS module offer, I raised some of them to test if we could achieve maximum water utilisation by crops. We planted kale cabbages and spinach three weeks ago, and today, we have been able to harvest the first spinach. I also got inspired to make compost and use it in my vegetable garden now – I expect my soil to get healthier and more productive.”
Different channels for different needs
All SMS-based training modules comprise several messages, and the user can navigate between them and conduct quizzes by responding with a certain number. The content comes in a story-telling format, and a short quiz follows every chapter. It connects the farmers to local extension services where they can get more information after the course has ended.
The training content on the app targets farmer trainers who can use it for the preparation or the training itself. The content can be accessed through the “Yielder” app, where other training material can be found. Illustrations, pictures, videos and quizzes make the content more appealing and can be showcased on a tablet or with a projector in farmer training sessions. FiBL has also tested Raspberry Pi computers for the usage of app-based training as alternatives to tablets in Rwanda and Kenya. Raspberry Pi are credit card-sized computers which are versatile and inexpensive. In this project, they were connected to a small monitor and used like tablets. These activities were implemented as part of the KCOA project. The results showed that Raspberry Pi computers are not handy, error-prone, and too fragile, and are therefore not recommended for farmer training.
Effects of digital farming training
Farmer surveys in Kenya have shown that SMS-based training positively impacts farmers; 90 per cent of the farmers improved their practices, 90 per cent increased their yields, and 76 per cent improved their livelihoods. In contrast to Kenya, SMS training was not very well received by Rwandan farmers, highly probably because of a “no reading culture”. This shows that the context matters, and that the attitude towards a digital channel may vary greatly between different cultures and people.
What we have learned together with our local partners
These 11 key learnings can be distilled for the use of digital training materials for smallholder farmers in East Africa:
- Content development: As the text length on SMS is very limited, concise formulations are necessary. Texts should come in a storytelling format to keep them attractive to read.
- Content adaptation: If the training is used in other countries, it must be adjusted to the local circumstances and languages. We learned e.g. that SMS does not work as well in Rwanda as it did in Kenya.
- Visual elements bring value to training: Videos, graphs, illustrations and photos can make a real difference in farmer training. Complex topics can be visualized, and through videos, the farmers can gain a personal impression of other farmers.
- SMS for introductions: SMS training is primarily suitable for introductory content and should be followed or accompanied by further guidance such as in-person training, advisory work, online training, or other ways that allow deepening of specific topics.
- Finding the right channel: Whether to use SMS, telephone, apps, or other channels should be based on the target group, the type of content, its complexity and the resources available.
- Costs: Compared to content development, dissemination is relatively low in cost, which makes it scalable to a high number of recipients.
- Cooperation: Good cooperation between technology partners and local partners with strong networks with farmers as well as a profound knowledge base are essential.
- Make clear what it costs: People might not use the training because they assume that additional costs will follow. It is essential to clarify from the beginning that it is for free or how much it costs.
- Marketing: Proper promotion of the training material on placards, flyers, the radio and tv to help to make it public is necessary to reach out to a high number of farmers.
- Reminder messages: More than one invitation message is needed. Farmers should be reminded several times to start or continue with the available training modules to achieve high engagement.
- Different use of technical devices: Reaching women, older adults and people with illiteracy or bad eyesight is challenging. It is essential to know the social structures and the use of phones within families and communities in order to adapt marketing activities and the training itself. People who cannot read will not benefit from SMS-training if they do not have someone to read the content to them.
How to reach illiterate people?
To address learning number 11, another technology called Interactive Voice Response (IVR) has been tested in Mali. IVR works similarly to SMS-based training but uses voice messages instead of text messages. This makes it useful for illiterate people or people with bad eyesight. The engagement with IVR was very high (90 per cent concluded at least one lesson), and 92 per cent of the farmers confirmed they were very satisfied with the content and would put what they have learned into practice.
From testing to scaling-up
This project doesn’t reinvent the wheel – but it shows that organic farm knowledge can reach a huge number of smallholder farmers by using simple technologies that are already being used. This requires knowledge preparation according to the target group, bringing the right partners together, and pursuing a holistic user-adapted dissemination strategy. Basic digital tools have the potential to contribute to more sustainable agriculture, healthier diets, and improved livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa. Based on these and other pilot activities, FiBL is now scaling up the training content and developing new modules. The aim is to get an additional 20,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda introduced and educated on organic farming practices.
Author: Selina Ulmann is an expert in farmer training and livestock at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Department of International Cooperation, and is based in Switzerland. Contact: email@example.com
Digital Training Materials Project:
The Knowledge Centre for Organic Agriculture in Africa (KCOA) is a collaborative country-led partnership funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and non-governmental organisations across Africa. The KCOA aims to scale up adoption of organic/agroecological farming practices through a network of five Knowledge Hubs in Africa. The project runs from 2019 to 2026.