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A community approach: digital innovations for extension

Dossier

Agricultural extension workers in the Caribbean are adopting ICTs to support innovative agricultural practices in their local communities

© Keron Bascombe

by

Caribbean

Following a training course in technology stewardship, actors in the Caribbean’s agri-food sector are implementing ICT approaches to provide agricultural advice and support to their local communities.

To better facilitate training and knowledge transfer among Caribbean agricultural communities, 20 actors involved in the agri-food value chain from Trinidad and Tobago – and now working across the region – took part in a 2-day capacity-building workshop ‘Introducing Technology Stewardship for Agricultural Communities of Practice in the Caribbean’ in April 2019. The participants, who included farmer association representatives, extension officers, as well as agricultural consultants, were introduced to the concepts of technology stewardship (see box).

Agricultural extension workers in the Caribbean are adopting ICTs to support innovative agricultural practices in their local communities

Agricultural extension workers in the Caribbean are adopting ICTs to support innovative agricultural practices in their local communities

© Keron Bascombe

“Technology stewardship is not the same as ‘IT support’,” says Gordon Gow, professor of communication at the University of Alberta and one of the course facilitators. “Technology stewards need to know how to engage their community members to identify opportunities and challenges; they need to be able to acquire and configure appropriate digital ICT platforms to support innovative practices; and they need to be able to evaluate and report the outcome of their efforts back to the community and to organisational sponsors,” he explains. 

Optimising cocoa production

One course trainee, Sara Bharath, is an agronomist and cocoa expert with 22 years’ experience. In 2011, she began volunteering with cocoa farmers in Trinidad, where she gained insight into what was missing in terms of extension services. “Unfortunately, there was limited hands-on training over a consistent and prolonged period, which is what many farmers need in order to build new and progressive habits and to make a difference with respect to quality and quantity,” she explains.

In 2016, Bharath started working with the Trinidad Micro Lot Project in Oregon in the USA, which works with small Trinidadian farmers to improve skills in cocoa production. Emphasis was placed on cocoa field management, timing and handling of harvesting, as well as appropriate conditions for the fermentation process, which is required before cocoa can be processed into chocolate. Starting with 40 farmers, the initiative aimed to increase quality and, by doing so, get farmers a better than world market price. The project purchases beans from the small producers and transports them to the USA to be sold to craft chocolatiers.

“Micro Lot producers are paid at least US$5/kg [€4.44] for dried beans. The local market was at the time [2016] paying nothing more than US$3/kg [€2.66] and with zero traceability on the beans, and little to no quality control was carried out (so the beans were substandard). The international market consistently pays US$3-4/kg [€2.6-3.5] for dried beans of similarly high quality and quantity,” explains Bharath.

Bharath admits that despite her demanded expertise, she is not a ‘tech savvy’ person, although she recognises the power and advantages of ICT tools. “For me, understanding [through the ICT training course] how to use these tools in a more systematic way was very beneficial, especially given the limited resource environment that is common in our agri sector,” she says. Since the training, Bharath has been using WhatsApp as a means of information dissemination and troubleshooting with the teams she has trained throughout the region. The most recent application has been to remotely monitor the fermentation process of beans in St. Vincent while she is away conducting work in Trinidad. Her team is able to send over photos and spreadsheets in real time for her to review and send back comments/decisions via voice notes or calls.

Also making the most of social media channels to train local cocoa farmers is Matthew Escalante, programme officer for the Cocoa Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago (CDCTT). “The course allowed me to understand which ICT is most applicable to the communities that CDCTT serves. We started implementing what was learned [in the course] in the small community of Lopinot using WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram,” he explains. “These digital tools are used by our cocoa producing families and are picture-based which community members respond to. We have sent videos on cocoa picking, harvesting and handling. However, it has been a challenge getting feedback from the community; our work is in progress,” he adds.

A local focus

“The low budget approach to implementing technology use was the most valuable aspect of the ICT training,” states Christopher Alexander, quality assurance manager at the Farmers’ Market and Quality Assurance Department of the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation (NAMDECO) of Trinidad and Tobago. “Our field officers were able to form a WhatsApp group to support the Moruga Farmers Cooperative producers of the Moruga Red (scorpion) pepper,” he continues. Through an on-the-ground outlet, Farmers’ Market provides quality assurance services for small farmers and cooperatives, and individuals of complementary agricultural sub-sectors, such as artisan and cottage industries, and small-scale agri-processing.

“We have established key officers who manage planning, accounting and advisory services for cooperatives. Focus is placed on communication with community leaders, sharing information, scheduling meetings and updating farmers. Often, producers seek price information or logistics for our farmers’ market activities,” Alexander says.

Responsible for monitoring the department’s farm certification programme, Alexander assigns field officers to small farmers within a particular area. The officers carry out farm visits, during which they record produce information, such as the date of crop planting, the expected date of harvest and harvest volume, and details on the state of the field, i.e. pest and disease incidences. These data are recorded on the National Agricultural Market Information System (NAMIS) database, which also contains market data from 2001 to the present day for over 40 commodities regularly traded at farmers markets in the country. Producers subscribed to NAMIS access the database via the website when they want to check local produce prices, and buyers can also access the database when they are looking to purchase produce.

Gateway app to modern technology

Jeet Ramjattan, a field officer with the Extension Training Information Services Division of the Ministry of Agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago, has interacted with over 3,000 farmers during his career. “I saw the role of a steward as complimentary to my ongoing engagement activities with farmers. As a field officer, it is expected that I take the lead in determining the needs of farmers and be the intermediary as farmers use ICTs in order to meet these needs. Agronomy, crop production, market information, sources of credit, among other farm services, are all accessible through the use of ICTs,” Ramjattan says.

In the east of the country, Ramjattan provides services to farmers via the Orange grove WhatsApp group. The farmers utilise the platform strictly for farming-related queries and solutions; for example, they often enquire about market prices for the commodities they produce including baigan (eggplant), caraille, cucumbers and lemons. Using the WhatsApp channel, Ramjattan has also been able to introduce the producers to NAMIS, and how to access price and volume data on a daily basis through the WhatsApp platform.

“Another farmer out of the group needed information on [the specific variety, available amount and price for] squash pumpkin seeds, so I sat with him to teach him how to write an email to a foreign supplier requesting information on the seeds, and then following through at organised intervals to get an import license. This involved signing up with TTBiz Link, an online service for license and permit procurement,” Ramjattan explains.

However, whilst some farmers are keen to embrace new technologies to increase their access to information and markets, Ramjattan admits, “Not everyone is there yet; many farmers still rely on face-to-face interactions. Many farmers own a smart device but are still unaware of how to use it.”  

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Participatory ICT extension

Since 2017, the University of Alberta, Canada, has been undertaking participatory action research to develop and test open education resources on technology stewardship. The research is targeted towards agricultural practitioners and extension agents in developing countries with limited resources, and intends to improve knowledge transfer capabilities using methods of social learning.

In March 2018, a 2-day technology stewardship course was tested with 20 agricultural and fisheries extension officers from across the Caribbean at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Participants were introduced to the concepts of stewardship and ‘community of practice’ (COP) – a group who share a common concern/interest. The participants were guided through a set of activities to explain how they would identify community needs, select appropriate ICTs to meet those needs, conduct pilot tests with their identified COP, and evaluate the results.

“We present a series of steps they can take to identify the needs that a COP might have… and the ICT tools that might address that need – and then look at a way to introduce those tools through a platform, such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Google,” says Dr Gordon Gow, a course leader from the University of Alberta. Participants were particularly eager to establish Facebook pages and WhatsApp messenger groups for use in, for example, plant disease diagnostics.

A final session involved participants creating individual action plans to outline an activity that they would conduct and complete after completion of the course. This could include a community engagement activity to identify ICT opportunities, a rapid prototyping exercise of a selected ICT, or the design of a campaign to implement an ICT.

“I know how to organise an initiative, set objectives, choose a specific ICT tool, and create a campaign to test, more or less by trial and error, if it’ll be effective with helping the farmers – or not,” says Michael Flowers, a course participant from the Department of Agriculture in the Bahamas.

Sophie Reeve