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Supporting advisory services for smart farming

Dossier: Innovative advisory services

RiceAdvice, a bilingual Android app, is providing extension agents and smallholder farmers in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal with field-specific recommendations


Digitalising extension

Digitalisation is improving the agricultural extension system by providing services at the right time, and facilitating adoption of new agronomic practices, resulting in yield improvements and higher incomes for farming households.

Traditionally, small-scale farmers make decisions based on their own experiences, influenced by conventional practices and collective knowledge, but this does not necessarily translate into productivity or profit. “Hands-on extension services, ranging from soil preparation, irrigation scheduling, selecting resistant cultivars and integrated pest management strategies in Africa's agriculture is crucial because the potential to safeguard global food security is lurking, but the infrastructure, skill and social development do not yet exist to unlock such potential,” explains Marili Mouton, an agronomist working in South Africa.

If Africa’s agriculture is to be transformed, Mouton believes that smarter ways of working are needed and the answer lies in innovating extension services with ICTs.

Village-level extension via video

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in Ethiopia video as a form of agricultural extension reaches 24% more farmers when compared to other kinds of agricultural extension; and extension agents using video make greater efforts to visit farms and provide follow-up advice than those who do not.

“This IFPRI study led to the development of our video-enabled approach, which, in a controlled evaluation, was found to be seven times more effective in terms of adoption of new practices, and 10 times more effective on a cost-per-adoption basis,” explains Rikin Gandhi, Digital Green’s executive director. Digital Green was launched in India in 2008 as a non-profit to work with smallholder farmers. In 2011, the organisation started to work in Ethiopia with the Ministry of Agriculture’s vast national extension system; more than 60,000 extension agents are tasked with reaching 60 million farmers.

Digital Green’s videos feature local community members sharing testimonials or demonstrating a practice. “By enabling rural community members to play an active role in creating and shaping content, Digital Green gives even isolated communities a voice,” adds Gandhi. Village-level extension agents (trained by Digital Green) screen the videos among groups of 20-25 farmers using battery-operated, mobile projectors. Mediators facilitate the screening, engage the audience in discussion, answer questions, capture feedback and motivate the community to adopt the featured practice.

For Digital Green, data is key – the extension agents who screen the videos capture the number of viewers reached, their questions and interests, and the number who apply the featured practice. Analysis of this data and feedback inform the production and distribution of the next set of videos in an iterative cycle that progressively addresses communities’ needs.

While video remains at the centre of Digital Green’s extension approach, the company is now exploring mobile app-based solutions to link farmers to markets as well as mobile app-based training and quality assurance for extension workers. “We now incorporate digital technologies such as interactive voice response (IVR) and SMS to deliver complementary or reinforcing messages,” says Gandhi.

Since 2009, Digital Green has facilitated production of more than 6,000 localised videos in 50 Ethiopian languages and dialects, which have been screened by 17,000 frontline workers to reach more than 2 million rural households. “We believe that, with recent developments in technology, it is possible to provide more nuanced solutions to farmers if the potential of these technologies is used more effectively,” says Gandhi.

Reaching out with radio

As a medium for agricultural extension, radio is easily accessible and affordable. However, it is not always suited to smallholder farmers, as information is primarily broadcast to the masses and not necessarily in minority languages. This is something the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) sought to change through their innovative partnership with Kilimo Media International in Kenya.

“Broadcasting in Swahili is not good enough,” explains Paul Castle, SFSA communications manager, “which is why SFSA decided to broadcast Kenyan farm advice in vernacular languages like Borana, Kimeru, Kikamba, Kimaasai and Kikuyu.” By working with vernacular radio stations, SFSA has found radio to be an innovative and cost-effective medium for agricultural extension. “You don’t need to read and write, or have internet connectivity or even a TV. Thanks to mobile phones, radio has become a lot more democratic. Listeners can send in messages using their phones and the agricultural extension offers we work with agree – it is a way for them to reach a wider audience,” adds Castle.

To allow farmers to ask further, contextually-relevant questions, SFSA has also established listener groups who meet with an extension officer after a radio broadcast. Planning meetings are also held with extension offers, and other agricultural experts. “This is a new approach for these stations that were essentially previously only playing music,” says Castle. “These stations have essentially set up their own agricultural calendars but they also have to react flexibly if there is a sudden threat (like drought). And, in this way, radio can be quite innovative and create real impact.”

The results speak for themselves – the amount of people calling in to radio shows rose from 0.03% to 29% and radio listenership rose from 59% to 96% within 3 years. Interestingly, the numbers show that these small stations also reached a far larger catchment area than SFSA had originally planned: “Because they’re broadcasting in languages which are spoken on both sides of the border, there are people listening in via the internet in Uganda and even southern Ethiopia,” Castle explains.

Going mobile

While radio plays an important role in advancing agricultural extension in Africa, mobile is also key. Yet, according to a 2018 study from the Pew Research Centre, sub-Saharan Africa still has the lowest smartphone penetration compared to the rest of the world. For companies using smartphone applications to extend agricultural extension services, connectivity remains a barrier to entry.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of households growing rice in irrigated and rain-fed lowland is estimated at around 4.7 million. Yet rice productivity is low due to sub-optimal crop management practices by smallholder farmers.

Enter RiceAdvice, a bilingual Android app that gives NGOs, extension agents and smallholder farmers in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal direct access to field-specific recommendations. Providing essential information at the start of each season, RiceAdvice also gives advice on key in-season practices like fertiliser application and weeding. As many rice farmers may not own a smartphone, agricultural extension officers (also often farmers themselves) provide farmers with RiceAdvice recommendations after entering detailed information such as rice-growing conditions, variety, typical practices, expected sowing date, fertiliser availability, market price, etc.

“Filling in the data is fairly easy as the questions are framed in such a way that they are easy to answer. Once this information is filled in, extension officers can help smallholder rice farmers to set yield targets based on their available budget or desired/recommended production levels. Once farmers get used to smartphones and can use RiceAdvice, they’ll have direct access to field-specific recommendations,” says Dr Kazuki Saito, an AfricaRice agronomist.

RiceAdvice is based on research repackaged into a format that is both useful and accessible for farmers. Face-to-face interviews and post-harvest surveys are then used to improve the app. Rice farming guidelines are newly generated each season in order to remain as accurate as possible, so although the app can be used offline, internet access is required to get the latest updates.

“Traditional blanket recommendations for soil fertility management practices have been introduced to rice farmers. However, these blanket recommendations have not been updated regularly, and are therefore quickly outdated,” explains Saito. In a 2015-2017 trial conducted in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, farmers using the RiceAdvice app showed average yield gains of 0.6 to 1.8 t/ha.

In fact, most farmers who used RiceAdvice reported increased yields and incomes, and reduced fertiliser use. “Studies by AfricaRice have shown that, compared to farmer practices, adoption of RiceAdvice recommendations can increase rice yield by about 20%, leading to an increase in profitability of about US$200 [€180] per hectare per season,” ends Saito. RiceAdvice is reaching around 10,000 farmers each season.

Capitalising on capacity strengthening

Enhancing digital and face-to-face agricultural extension to farmers through training is something that fresh produce delivery service, Ojay Greene, is working towards. Founded by Yvette Ondachi, a Kenyan scientist, her business is on a social mission to increase the income of smallholder farmers. “Farmers work the hardest in this country. It’s so sad to work so hard and not get a return. Year in, year out, they’re doing the same thing… Ojay Greene is about improving productivity but also bringing together and enriching communities,” emphasises Ondachi.

Ojay Greene produces and sources fresh fruits and vegetables from smallholder farmers to sell to supermarkets, restaurants and hotels in urban areas. The Kenyan company cuts out the middle man by providing smallholder farmers a market for their produce, as well as technologies and strategies to improve production. Farmers are divided into groups of 10-200 farmers within a neighbourhood or community, and assigned an Ojay Greene agronomist. Agronomists use a combination of community-based meetings during their visits as well as SMS to communicate with farmers about production, inputs, and disease control, among others issues, throughout all stages of the farming process as Ojay Greene requires that the farmers remain in frequent communication with them. “It’s not just about enriching the community, it’s about enriching a continent, changing the landscape of sub-Saharan Africa and feeding the world,” ends Ondachi. By 2020, Ojay Greene hopes to reach 20,000 farms across Kenya and is looking to expand into neighbouring countries.

National level extension

In Ghana, 59% of the country's workforce are involved in agriculture in some way. Yet one of the biggest challenges that the country faces is educating its smallholder farmers. To bridge the gap between agricultural extension agents and farmers, Ghana implemented a national e-agriculture system in 2011 through its Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

The platform enables farmers, processors and other stakeholders to exchange opinions and resources relating to agriculture. The platform includes three elements. The first is known as Called ‘e-Farm Information’, where farmers can use the e-agriculture call centre facility – at no cost – to find out best farming practices in local languages. There’s also an e-Learning and Resource Centre, which provides useful information for all actors in the agricultural value chain. Finally, extension officers are equipped with digital tools to collect farm and farmer data through digital tools to help provide enhanced advice to farmers.

In Côte d'Ivoire, with support from the World Bank, the National Agency for Support to Rural Development created an electronic agricultural extension services system in 2018 to reach as many farmers as possible, even those in remote areas, to improve farm productivity and access to markets. The e-extension platform serves as an IVR-server and call centre through which farmers can pose technical questions and seek advice on farming practices. “This project will ensure that farmers have timely information on key aspects of the agriculture value chain such as the seed market and that public institutions can collect agricultural and rural statistics for more efficient sector polices and strategy,” states Pierre Laporte, World Bank’s country director for Côte d’Ivoire. The 5-year initiative aims to reach 6.1 million smallholder farmers. Like many African countries, the agriculture sector remains an important driver of Côte d’Ivoire’s economy accounting for 22% of GDP and more than 74% of exports, with the majority of smallholders operating on less than 2 ha of land.

“As the African population continues to expand at a rapid pace, digital extension is key in ensuring that food security is met,” emphasises Mouton. Through innovative extension services that improve production and increase both productivity and yield, smallholder farmers in Africa are managing to, and will continue to adopt, smarter, more impactful and sustainable agricultural practices going forward.


Digital integration for extension by radio

Farm Radio International (FRI) is changing the way radio is used by bridging the divide between broadcasters and listeners through experiments that combine radio, mobile phones and the internet. The aim is to provide the most cost-effective and impactful digital extension to farmers.

Uliza (‘ask’ in Swahili) is FRI’s innovative extension platform for audience engagement, monitoring and quality assurance that integrates radio, mobile and IVR systems. The online platform allows partner radio stations to engage hundreds, even thousands, of listeners who use their mobile phones before, during, and after farm radio programmes air. Listeners can vote, register for alerts, request the delivery of specific, crop-related information and get their questions answered. The process is quick, easy, participatory and – most importantly – free. Listeners also leave messages on Uliza, providing feedback on the programmes and how these can be changed to suit their needs.

Content is delivered to listeners in their own language, eliminating literacy barriers. Broadcasters upload episodes each week to Uliza, and then FRI staff and subject matter specialists involved in the project listen to the episode and provide feedback to the station team so they can improve subsequent episodes. Broadcasters also access audience data in real-time using Uliza’s digital dashboard. This information helps the broadcasters to better understand the farmers who call in – they can gather feedback, access listener-generated content and provide information and services that help their listeners.

To date, more than 70 of FRI’s radio partners in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda have used Uliza to interact with more than 210,000 individual listeners. Uliza makes farm radio better for broadcasters and better for small-scale farmers. “That is why I am proud of Uliza,” says Kevin Perkins, FRI executive director. “Radio programmes invite listeners to share their experiences or their opinions or ask their questions using Uliza. The resulting data goes right back to them – via the radio programmes they listen to,” adds Perkins. “And they can be confident that the collective, anonymised feedback they offer really is reaching decision-makers, because it is going out on the airwaves that everyone listens to – including the decision-makers.”